PEORIA, Ill. — Brendt Christensen, found guilty two weeks ago in the kidnapping and slaying of a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois, will die in prison, defense attorney Julie Brain told the jury Monday as the trial’s penalty phase got underway.
“The only question that remains is when that death will occur,” she said. “He will be punished for (his crime) severely — your guilty verdict will make sure of that.”
The jury that convicted Christensen, 30, after less than two hours of deliberations now must decide if he should be sentenced to death or life in prison.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Nelson called the kidnapping and slaying of Yingying Zhang “cold, calculated, cruel and months in the making.” Christensen was plotting to kill someone even as Zhang was preparing to travel to the United States from China, Nelson said.
On June 9, 2017, Zhang was on her way to sign a lease for a new apartment when she missed a bus in the area of the Urbana-Champaign campus and Christensen approached her in his car. Prosecutors said he posed as an undercover police officer and offered her a ride. A video camera captured her getting into his car.
According to statements he made in a conversation recorded for the FBI by his then-girlfriend, Christensen took Zhang to his apartment, sexually assaulted her, choked her and beat her to death with a baseball bat.
Zhang’s body has not been recovered.
Any question of his guilt disappeared in the opening day of testimony in his criminal trial, when defense attorneys admitted he committed the crime.
Illinois abolished capital punishment in 2011 and put a moratorium on the practice 11 years before that. But federal prosecutors can still seek the death penalty in states that have abolished capital punishment. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in 2015 in a federal trial in Massachusetts, which has banned the practice at the state level.
It’s been more than 13 years since someone was sentenced to death in a federal courtroom in Illinois. In 2006, a judge affirmed a jury’s sentence of death for Dr. Ronald Mikos, who was convicted of killing a former patient slated to testify against him in a Medicare fraud trial. Mikos remains on death row in the maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
The penalty phase in federal court here is expected to last a week or more. A 66-item exhibit list filed by defense attorneys includes Christensen family home videos, family history, medical records, inmate files, educational and financial records.
Prosecutors submitted an exhibit list that includes videos of the Zhang family home, Zhang singing and video of her friends. The prosecution’s list of exhibits also includes recorded phone calls Christensen made from jail, records from his accounts on multiple online dating platforms and photographs of items seized from Christensen while he’s been in jail.
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