Jury weighs fate of Illinois man in gruesome slaying of student from China

PEORIA, Ill. (Reuters) - Federal jurors on Wednesday were deliberating the fate of an Illinois man who was found guilty of the gruesome murder of a Chinese graduate student two years ago, and will decide whether to sentence him to death or life in prison.

Brendt Christensen, 29, was found guilty last month of the abduction and murder of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

While the state of Illinois has outlawed capital punishment, it is an option in federal cases under U.S. kidnapping laws. Defense attorneys are seeking a life sentence for Christensen.

During closing arguments on Wednesday, prosecutors described how Christensen, a one-time masters student at the university, took Zhang to his apartment, where she fought for her life as he bludgeoned her with a baseball bat, raped her and stabbed her in the neck before cutting off her head.

"This is the definition of heinous. This the definition of shockingly evil," James Nelson, a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice's capital case division, told the jury.

Christensen's lawyers acknowledged throughout the trial and in their closing arguments that their client killed Zhang, but asked the jury to consider that he had struggled with substance abuse and mental illness.

"The person he became was completely and totally inconsistent with the Brendt that he was for the first 26 years of his life," said Elisabeth Pollock, one of his lawyers.

As she spoke, the jury was shown a photo of Christensen as an adolescent smiling with a friend and another with him holding a cat.

Zhang's parents and fiance sat through the five-week trial in U.S. District Court in Peoria, about 165 miles (265 miles) southwest of Chicago.

"It is horrible what they have gone through and nothing can repair it," Pollock said.

The 12-person jury must unanimously agree to the death penalty or Christensen will be sentenced to life in prison.

"Life without release means he is leaving in a coffin no matter what you do," Pollock said.

Zhang was reported missing on June 9, 2017, two months after coming from southeastern China to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university. Her remains have never been found but prosecutors said her DNA was matched to blood later found in three spots inside Christensen's bedroom.

Investigators were led to Christensen through surveillance video footage captured in Urbana, 130 miles (210 km) south of Chicago, that showed Zhang getting into a black car that was later traced to him.

Earlier in the trial, prosecutors characterized Christensen as having a fascination with serial killers. These included Ted Bundy, who murdered dozens of women during the 1970s and was put to death in 1989.

"The defendant killed Yingying Zhang for sport and because he thought he could get away with it," Nelson told the jury.

Details of the crime, including Zhang's decapitation, were revealed by Christensen in conversations with a girlfriend secretly recorded for FBI agents investigating the case before his arrest, according to trial testimony.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Peter Szekeley in New York; editing by Frank McGurty and Grant McCool)

07/17/2019 20:38

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