CHICAGO — Lawyers for a former physics student accused of kidnapping and killing a 26-year-old University of Illinois scholar from China say they want the judge overseeing the death-penalty case to recuse himself, though they don’t spell out why in newly filed public records.
In documents filed Wednesday in federal court in central Illinois, Brendt Christensen’s attorneys also argue the case is so complex that they’ll need until June 2019 to prepare for trial, including to potentially research their 28-year-old client’s genealogy and prenatal care. Prosecutors want a trial much sooner, in October.
Both sides agreed a scheduled Feb. 24 trial date had to be struck after prosecutors announced in January they’ll seek the death penalty, citing allegations Christensen tortured Yingying Zhang before killing her. Capital punishment is available in federal cases — but rarely sought. The state of Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011.
The defense must go through voluminous evidence, with less manpower than federal prosecutors have available. That includes thousands of written documents, 14 discs of wiretapped calls, a DNA report and hundreds of hours of phone calls recorded from Christensen’s jail. There also is data from seven computer hard drives and four cellphones, according to the defense.
The two-page filing informing U.S. District Judge Colin Stirling Bruce that Christensen’s legal team wants him off the case asks for permission to file a formal motion of recusal under seal. It hints that previously sealed documents the defense tried but failed to have released to the public underlie the recusal request. It doesn’t elaborate.
Both defense attorney Robert Tucker and Sharon Paul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office for the central district of Illinois, declined comment Thursday.
Zhang’s disappearance on June 9 on her way to sign an apartment lease off campus in Urbana drew international media attention. The daughter of a semitrailer driver in China had just missed a bus when Christensen lured her into his car, prosecutors say. Her body has never been found.
Prosecutors agree there’s a new layer of complexity now that it’s a death-penalty case. In a Wednesday filing requesting an Oct. 16 trial date, prosecutors estimated trial testimony should last two weeks, while any death-penalty phase could last for three weeks.
If jurors convict Christensen, prosecutor would portray the crime as calculated and cruel in seeking death. Defense attorneys would try to introduce mitigating factors, which can include evidence of mental illness or a difficult upbringing.
The scope of the effort to save his life would involve a “comprehensive collection and analysis of every record that exists concerning the defendant,” defense filings say. A “multigenerational investigation of (Christensen’s) family tree” and research into nutrition he received while in his mother’s womb could offer insight into his mental state, the defense argues.
They cite New York psychiatric epidemiologist David Freedman as saying: “Even such common events as preterm birth and low birth weight … are associated with later psychiatric and medical illnesses.”
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm