Brendt Christensen trial: Jury selection in death penalty trial to begin Monday

By this time next week, a federal judge hopes to have made headway toward seating a jury in the case of Brendt Christensen, accused of kidnapping and killing University of Illinois Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang.

Zhang's disappearance and murder commandeered public attention from Champaign to Chicago to Chengdu. She was last seen June 9, 2017, getting into Christensen's car on the U of I campus. She had just missed a bus. Christensen was an ex-physics graduate student at Illinois' flagship campus.

Jury selection in the case begins Monday in Peoria, where the case was moved due to saturation news coverage in the Urbana area.

In newly filed court documents, Christensen's attorneys are asking for permission to use visual aids about the death penalty during questioning of jurors.
Illinois does not currently use the death penalty but because Christensen has been charged federally with kidnapping and a resulting murder, prosecutors have deemed this a capital case.

His lawyers want to display a "schematic" chart that explains a jury's role in federal death penalty cases. They also want to display what amounts to a reality checklist entitled "LIFE OR DEATH DECISION-MAKING IN A FEDERAL CAPITAL CASE."

Atop the defense team's proposed "life or death" chart is this: "No juror is ever required to impose a sentence of death."

The list explains the alternative punishment of a life sentence without possibility of release and states that "The decision is a moral one that each juror must decide for himself or herself."

The defense motion asking for permission to use those two visual aids has not been ruled on by Judge James Shadid, but the use of such a show-and-tell during jury selection has been permitted in some other federal death penalty cases.

The list of potential jurors began with more than 1,000 names. Mailed questionnaires knocked that number down to 477 at last report in the jury pool. Beginning Monday, the court will call a group of 20 prospective jurors in the morning and another in the afternoon.

It is expected that jury selection could take up to two weeks.

12 jurors and six alternates have to be selected.

The trial could last two months once a jury is seated, sources familiar with the case say.

Zhang's family members have arrived from China and are expected to be in court in Peoria for the first day of jury selection. The scholar's body has never been found.

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