Brendt Christensen will be tried for the kidnapping and killing of Yingying Zhang 90 miles from where the alleged crimes occurred.
This week, Peoria-based U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid approved Christensen’s attorneys’ two-month-old request for a change of venue — from Urbana to Peoria — but not because of the significant pretrial coverage the case has received locally, as the defense cited in its motion.
"Even if the Court were to find a complete absence of prejudicial pretrial publicity — an unlikely finding given the significant public interest in this case — the Court’s balancing of the Rule 18 (trial venue) factors would still weigh in favor of transfer to the Peoria Division," Shadid wrote.
Christensen is accused of kidnapping Ms. Zhang, a visiting University of Illinois scholar from China who was last seen entering his car June 9, 2017.
Christensen said he dropped her off a few blocks away. He was arrested on his birthday — June 30, 2017 — on a kidnapping charge. Thirteen weeks later, a federal grand jury indicted him on additional charges of kidnapping resulting in death and lying to the FBI.
Shadid said he considered "the convenience of Defendant, witnesses, and the victim’s family. In addition, the Court has considered docket management, courthouse space, and the prompt administration of justice."
Shadid took over this case in August after Judge Colin Bruce was removed from hearing criminal cases following the public revelation of emails between him and a paralegal for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Shadid, who’s now overseeing criminal cases in Peoria and Urbana, said having the trial in Peoria, where he sits, would allow him to manage his cases there more easily.
"A Peoria trial setting will allow the undersigned to attend to other civil and criminal matters before, during, and after the Court adjourns for the day, whereas an Urbana trial setting would require the undersigned to reschedule hearings in other cases that could otherwise be addressed during breaks in this trial," Shadid wrote.
"Given the anticipated length of this trial and the other matters currently pending before the undersigned, concerns of docket management thus weigh heavily in favor of transferring this matter to the Peoria Division."
The trial, scheduled for April 2019, is expected to last at least five weeks.
Prosecutors had objected to a change of venue, including a plea from Ms. Zhang’s family to keep the case in Urbana, as they said they’ve developed strong ties with the community.
Urbana attorney Steve Beckett, who represents Ms. Zhang’s family, was disappointed for the family by the news of the move.
"There are genuine concerns for the Zhang family, who felt welcomed and supported by the University of Illinois community," Beckett said. "While a move to Peoria and away from Urbana may be legally appropriate, it does raise the emotional stakes for the family."
Shadid said he strongly considered the family’s wishes.
"The factor which weighs most heavily against transfer of this case to the Peoria Division is the fact that the victim’s family will likely be somewhat inconvenienced," Shadid wrote.
However, he said the other factors outweighed this, writing that "the Court believes the timely ruling on this issue five months ahead of the scheduled trial will allow the United States to assist the victim’s family in developing support and ties to the Peoria community as well."
He also said the move to Peoria shouldn’t be a major inconvenience for witnesses, as most of them are law enforcement officers "who regularly travel throughout the District as part of their law enforcement duties."
He noted that the Peoria courthouse is only an hour-and-a-half drive from the Urbana courthouse.
Shadid also cited the "significantly greater parking accommodations" at the Peoria courthouse and the number of jury trials already scheduled for April at the smaller courthouse in Urbana.
"The availability of additional courtrooms in the Peoria Division would allow this matter to be tried without significantly inconveniencing the other judges or delaying other trial settings," he wrote.
"Moreover, the increased size of the Peoria courthouse and significantly greater parking accommodations are particularly beneficial in this case, where the parties anticipate summoning a large pool of potential jurors."
There are roughly 1,500 parking spaces in three parking decks near the Peoria courthouse, Shadid said, and about 180 in the municipal parking lot near the Urbana courthouse.