Missing scholar’s alleged kidnapper facing tricky legal process


Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Police Department

Photo of Brendt Christensen, alleged kidnapper and killer of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang. Recent court documents revealed Christensen visited the University Counseling Center three months before Zhang’s disappearance.

By Jessica Bursztynsky, News editor

Brendt Christensen’s upcoming trial in the kidnapping case of Yingying Zhang, a missing scholar from China, is expected to come to a halt quickly.

“The case isn’t nearly ready to go to trial,” said University law professor Andrew Leipold.

He said there’s no way to tell what will happen, what a timeline will be or any other distinguishing information in the case in the coming weeks because there is not much information available to the public until evidence is presented at trial.

Christensen was charged with one count of federal kidnapping on June 30, denied bail on July 5 by Judge Eric Long, indicted by a federal grand jury on July 12 and formally arraigned on July 20.

At the July 20 arraignment, Christensen pleaded not guilty, and a trial date was set for Sept. 12. A pre-trial date is taking place Aug. 28, where Leipold expects the trial to be pushed back.

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    “There’s a little bit of excitement about the idea that it was scheduled for September, but nobody thought it was going to happen within 70 days of the charge,” Leipold.

    The defense team will likely seek delays due to the Speedy Trial Act, which is a federal statute that states a trial must begin within 70 days of a formal charge. The defendant can often waive these rights, said University law professor Eric Johnson.

    Tom Bruno, one of Christensen’s three defense attorneys, said that there is no limit to a number of times a trial can be pushed back in federal court. Both parties agree they’re not ready to proceed, noting they’ll likely keep rescheduling it until everyone is on terms.

    “For an incident that’s alleged to have occurred in early June, having a federal jury trial in early September is highly unrealistic,” Bruno said.

    Pushing the case further back may not be in either side’s interest, said University law professor Margareth Etienne.

    “The more time that goes on, the more likely they (prosecutors) are to find the body,” Etienne said.

    Both the defense and prosecution are currently reviewing thousands of pages of discovery material — or what the prosecution claims to be evidence, Bruno said.

    This is also the time for prosecutors to turn over any Brady information or any information that is helpful to the defendant. Both parties also could file pretrial motions, such as a motion to exclude evidence if it was illegally obtained. These motions would be done before the trial began and argued in court.

    “We are still awaiting more investigative reports, which we have been told will be coming in the future which we don’t have yet,” Tom Bruno said on Aug. 23.

    Because most of the evidence is not public, each side is facing a tremendous amount of pressure to prove their points, Etienne said.

    The surveillance footage that’s been widely shared on social media shows Zhang entering presumably Christensen’s car, but Etienne said it must be proved that her consent was missing.

    Etienne said Christensen’s alleged statements that he did kidnap Zhang isn’t sufficient evidence.

    “He could say he made it up, there’s no physical evidence (that is known of),” she said. “Even the testimonial evidence, they’re going to want any physical corroboration of that.”

    Bruno doesn’t expect the case to continue for longer than a year. He said that less complex cases — such as a federal drug case — usually take six months or longer to be resolved.

    From an objective standpoint, most federal cases do end up in a plea bargain.

    “This case is a little bit different,” Etienne said, adding that there truly is a heavy burden on the government to prove Christensen’s alleged actions.

    Whether Christensen pleads guilty or is found guilty by a federal jury, Etienne said there’s still federal sentencing guidelines that must be adhered to.

    “He (Christensen) is not facing that much time on the kidnapping (alone), with no prior criminal record,” Etienne said. “The judge can’t just pull out a number of a hat.”

    The federal sentencing guideline goes off of a point system and adds factors such as criminal records, evidence that has been proved in court and other factors to determine the degree of penalty.

    A violation of 18 U.S. Code § 1201, or kidnapping, says that a person “shall be punished by imprisonment for any term of years or for life and, if the death of any person results, shall be punished by death or life imprisonment.”

    If prosecutors can prove that Zhang’s death resulted from Christensen’s alleged kidnapping, then he would be facing life in prison or the death penalty, even if he has not been formally charged with murder.

    “This might not satisfy the victim’s family, who might want a murder charge, but of course, the Champaign County State’s Attorney could always file a murder charge if the evidence would support one,” Leipold later wrote in an email.

    Because federal law overrides state law, Christensen could still face execution — even in Illinois — if charged with kidnapping and a resulting murder.

    Yet Leipold noted that federal execution is not a common practice: While there are currently 72 inmates on death row, only three have been executed since 1976.

    If charged with kidnapping that resulted in death, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would decide Christensen’s fate.

    Leipold said to remember that with very little information, this is heavy speculation.

    Jury selections will begin at the beginning of the trial, which could add even more time.

    “In this community where it’s been so publicized, finding a jury that will listen to the case and be impartial will be a pretty big issue,” Etienne said. “This is a case that affects the University community a lot, but most students aren’t on jury duty here. There’s a sense that they may feel their interests aren’t really represented in a case like this.”

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