Brendt Christensen trial: Prosecutors conducted secret Chinese interviews for death hearing, defense says

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff & Christine Tressel WLS logo
Monday, July 8, 2019
Brendt Christensen trial: Prosecutors conducted secret Chinese interviews for death hearing, defense says
On the first day of the penalty phase of Christensen's trial, the defense fought the use of video tapes of Zhang's friends.

Federal prosecutors conducted a "secret foreign investigation" resulting in "secret interviews" according to attorneys for Brendt Christensen, who this week is facing a death penalty hearing after being convicted of kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang, a Chinese scholar visiting the University of Illinois.

In newly filed court records, Christensen's attorneys late Sunday described the allegedly covertly gathered tapes that the "government has resisted sharing... despite collecting it since at least October 2018, primarily from China and assisted by Chinese law enforcement."

Defense attorneys contend they "only learned of the government's secret foreign investigation following the culpability phase, when the government disclosed hours of video tapes and voluminous transcripts --and accompanying exhibits -- of Mandarin-speaking witnesses who will not appear at trial."

They asked the videos to be banned from presentation to the jury, claiming that the use of such previously undisclosed secret videos would violate Christensen's Constitutional rights and not afford them any cross-examination of the witnesses.

On Monday morning, however, Judge James Shadid ruled against Christensen. Judge Shadid determined he would allow edited-down versions of seven interviews with Zhang's friends in China to be played for the jury. The government videos are apparently intended to establish what type of young woman Zhang was and what her loss will mean to her Chinese friends.

There will be numerous other recordings played during the death penalty phase of Christensen's trial, which is being held in Peoria, including a video made last weekend with the victim's mother and jailhouse phone calls made by Christensen aimed at illustrating his lack of remorse.

It has been two years and one month since Zhang disappeared from U of I's flagship campus. Christensen was convicted by a federal jury last month of abducting, killing and dismembering her-although the remains of 26 year old Zhang have never been found.

The same jury that quickly found Christensen guilty will determine whether he be executed or spend life in prison during a proceeding expected to last about two weeks. Even though Illinois abolished the state death penalty in 2011, Justice Department officials opted to make Zhang's killing a capital case because it was federally prosecuted.


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