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The evidence was overwhelming. The jury's "guilty" verdict was inevitable. Desperate defense lawyers focused on saving their client's life.

So they admitted what could not credibly be denied and acknowledged the truth — their client was guilty of murder.

Brendt Christensen? This situation does apply to him.

But this case played out in Louisiana, where Robert L. McCoy faced trial and a potential death sentence for triple murder.

The defense's tactic of acknowledging guilt in an attempt to persuade jurors to spare McCoy's life failed. They imposed the death sentence.

But McCoy had an ace in the legal hole. He protested from the beginning his lawyers' decision and ultimately prevailed.

In a May 2018 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such an important decision — acknowledging a client's guilt — wasn't the defense lawyer's to make, no matter how much sense it made from a tactical standpoint. Instead, it was the defendant's decision.

Because the defense lawyer and the trial judge ignored McCoy's wishes, the Supreme Court ruled, his conviction must be overturned and the case sent back for retrial.

Writing for the court's 6-3 majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held that McCoy "had the right under the Sixth Amendment (right to the assistance of counsel) to insist that his prior counsel refrain from admitting the defendant committed three murders during guilt phase of capital trial, even though counsel reasonably believed that admitting guilt afforded (McCoy) the best chance to avoid the death sentence."

But doesn't a veteran lawyer know better than an unrealistic defendant how best to approach decisions like this?

Almost certainly, but the defendant isn't required to listen even to good advice because after all, it's his trial — and perhaps funeral.

"The Sixth Amendment, in granting to the accused personally the right to make his defense, speaks of the 'assistance' of counsel, and an assistant, however expert, is still an assistant," Ginsburg wrote.

The McCoy decision also held that "no blanket rule demands the defendant's explicit consent to implementation of that strategy."

How does that relate to Christensen?

There has been nothing that's occurred publicly indicating that Christenen has consented to the defense strategy of acknowledging guilt in the trial phase.

But U.S. Judge Jim Shadid and prosecution and defense lawyers are undoubtedly aware of the McCoy decision and acting in a way that avoids the issue it raised.

The answer probably lies in the legal motions that have been sealed by the court and withheld from public view, at least for the time being.

For his part, Christensen has been remarkably composed during a trial that has involved ghastly evidence relating to the kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang, a University of Illinois visiting scholar from China who disappeared from campus on June 9, 2017.

It's impossible to read a defendant's mind.

But Christensen has shown no signs of remorse, contrition or even embarrassment.

His only real show of emotion — a smile — came during a brief conversation last week with his father in the courtroom.

It's not without precedent that serial killers — Christensen said he aspired to Ted Bundy-like accomplishments — enjoy being the center of attention, even in a courtroom.

During his interview with UI counselors, Christensen said he had "proved" that he was smart many times but reluctantly concluded that he was "probably not a genius" and was "never going to be great as a physicist."

So Christensen said he refocused his general interest to "bad guys," specifically Bundy, whom he called the "worst" of his serial-killer role models.

A former law student, Bundy is alleged to have killed dozens of young women and girls.

He was executed in Florida in 1989.

During a June 29 tape-recorded conversation at a vigil for Ms. Zhang, Christenesen told his girlfriend how he killed Ms. Zhang.

He called the act his "legacy" and bragged how those present at the vigil were unknowingly there to pay tribute to him.

The defense has characterized Christensen's words in that conversation as alcohol-fueled bragging.

But it's consistent with earlier statements he made that indicated why he might not mind being the current center of attention at the federal courthouse in Peoria.

"I don't care how I'm remembered, just that I am," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at or 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is