PEORIA — Prosecutors said Wednesday that evidence of handprint-shaped bloodstains was found in the apartment of Brendt Christensen, who is accused of kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.
Ms. Zhang, from China, was last seen June 9, 2017, entering Christensen's car near a bus stop on campus and is presumed dead by the FBI.
While Christensen told the FBI that he let Ms. Zhang out of his car a few blocks away, prosecutors said shortly after he was arrested that they have tapes of Christensen describing how he kidnapped Ms. Zhang and carried her back to his apartment, how she "fought and resisted against him" and how he restrained her.
Now, prosecutors say they have recordings that Christensen "engaged in conduct that would result in her bleeding in the apartment."
They also said Wednesday that "the evidence will show the defendant took extensive steps to clean the apartment after his alleged offense, thereby preventing confirmatory testing, but leaving trace amounts that were detected by the preliminary testing."
Prosecutors said "the identification, location and pattern of the blood (including human handprints) were consistent with the defendant's own later recorded statements as to what occurred in the apartment."
Prosecutors had Christensen's girlfriend wear a wire and surreptitiously record his conversations in the two weeks leading up to his arrest June 30, 2017. Law enforcement also interviewed him twice before his arrest.
U.S. attorneys were responding Wednesday to a motion filed by Christensen's lawyers in August seeking to exclude both certain blood tests and a hearing about the reliability of the DNA and blood testing used.
A hearing is currently scheduled for Monday on that, as well on the reliability of a cadaver-sniffing canine which, according to the defense, alerted to the presence of a body in Christensen's bathroom.
An FBI biologist will testify at trial that she identified Ms. Zhang's DNA in Christensen's bedroom and the possible presence of blood in his bedroom and bathroom, his lawyers said in August.
The presence of blood was found, but not confirmed with more testing, on his mattress, bathroom sink trap and bedroom wall and floor, Christensen's lawyers said.
The presence of blood was confirmed on a piece of carpet and a piece of baseboard, they said.
His lawyers want the unconfirmed results excluded from the trial, which is scheduled to begin in April.
Prosecutors argued Wednesday that the blood tests don't need to be conclusive to be included at trial, but instead only need to make an important fact more or less probable.
"The results of the luminol testing in this case make it more probable that blood was found in the defendant's apartment," they wrote, especially when considered with other factors.
They said there's "substantial evidence tending to establish that the blood is the victim’s blood, including DNA testing, the defendant’s own statements, and the shape, pattern, and location of the stains revealed through the use of luminol."
They also argue that the blood testing has been a "standard confirmatory test for blood for over 100 years" and that "every court to have considered the issue has found that" the DNA tests used "are scientifically reliable and the results admissible."
Because of this, they argued that Monday's hearing is unnecessary.
Questions for potential jurors OK'd
PEORIA — U.S. District Judge James Shadid approved a list of about 120 questions Wednesday that potential jurors will have to answer before deciding the fate of Brendt Christensen.
Their answers will help Shadid and the lawyers for both sides pick an impartial jury in April that they hope can fairly decide whether Christensen is guilty, and if so, whether he deserves the death penalty.
The questions include everything from what books they like to read to what online dating apps they've used.
Shadid mostly stuck with the questions previously agreed to, adding two requested by the defense and one by the prosecutors.
— Have you formed an opinion regarding the guilt or innocence of Mr. Christensen based on what you have seen, read or heard? If yes, what is your opinion?
— Have you formed an opinion regarding the appropriate punishment for Mr. Christensen based on what you have read, seen, heard or discussed? If yes, what is your opinion?
— Which of the following best describes your feelings about the death penalty? (The eight possible answers given range from complete opposition to the death penalty to no opinion to strongly in favor of capital punishment.)
The answers to these and the other questions will help determine whether a potential juror should be disqualified from serving.
"Potential jurors who would automatically vote for or against the death penalty must be disqualified," Shadid wrote Wednesday.
During jury selection, which is also called voir dire, each side gets to argue to Shadid that certain jurors should be struck for cause. Then they also each get to strike 20 jurors without cause.
"The purpose of the questionnaire is to identify and disqualify those who are plainly unable to be impartial and also to elucidate the views and opinions of those who remain," Shadid wrote. "In this respect, the questionnaires assist the court and counsel with the task of deciding which of those in the venire should be struck for cause, inform counsel as to potential topics for follow-up questioning during individual voir dire, and guide counsel's later decision to exercise a peremptory challenge."
Many of the questions are obviously relevant, such as whether the potential jurors know anyone involved in the case and if they have any ailments that would affect their ability to serve, but others are seemingly unrelated, including:
— Would you consider yourself to be a leader?
— Have you ever made posts to YouTube, Reddit or other such sites?
— And how often do you attend a place of worship?
Lawyers can't strike a juror because of their race or gender, so the many questions can give lawyers a race- or gender-neutral reason for doing so.
Shadid denied the defense's request to have potential jurors fill out the questionnaires at the courthouse in Peoria, where the trial is going to be.
Because he didn't include some of the sensitive questions the defense wanted to include in the questionnaire, he said filling them out at the courthouse wouldn't be necessary.
Instead, potential jurors will fill out the questionnaires online if they receive a jury summons in the mail.
Now the court has to decide how the jury will be selected after they fill out their questionnaires.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin April 1 and could last several days to several months.
In a motion filed early Wednesday evening, prosecutors argued for potential jurors to be questioned as part of a panel, instead of individually, as the defense has asked for.
In some federal capital cases cited by prosecutors, jury selection has ranged from as short as three days to as long as more than four months.