News Local/State

Christensen Found Guilty Of The Murder, Kidnapping Of Yingying Zhang

Yingying Zhang's family standing outside the federal courthouse in Peoria following the trial of Brendt Christensen. Media surrounds the family.

Yingying Zhang's family prepares to speak to the Chinese speaking press outside the federal courthouse in Peoria following the trial of Brendt Christensen on Monday, June 24, 2019. It was the request of the family's attorney that they offer a statement in their native language. Christensen was found guilty of the kidnapping and murder of Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

It took a jury less than two hours to return a guilty verdict in Brendt Christensen’s trial for the kidnapping and murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang. The verdict means Christensen faces either life in prison or the death penalty.

Christensen looked relatively unfazed as Judge Jim Shadid read the jury’s verdict Monday: guilty on all three counts. In addition to kidnapping and murdering Zhang, the jury also found Christensen guilty on two counts of lying to the FBI.

Zhang disappeared from the U of I campus in Urbana two years ago. Surveillance footage showed her getting into Christensen’s car. Her body has not yet been found.

Christensen’s defense team acknowledged at the beginning of the nine day trial that their client was responsible for Zhang’s death.

We cannot know exactly what happened in that apartment. No one can."Defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock

“We were not going to make excuses,” said one of Christensen’s attorneys, Elisabeth Pollock, during the defense team’s closing statements. She told jurors that Christensen picked Zhang up on June 9, 2017. She said he took her back to his apartment and killed her. But she also told them, “We cannot know exactly what happened in that apartment. No one can.”

“A good portion of what the prosecution has told you, it is inference, for the largest part,” Pollock said.  

Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, Eugene Miller, told the jury in closing arguments, “He did it.” Miller said DNA evidence and the defendant’s own words point to his guilt, as well as his attorneys’ admissions. Miller walked jurors through each question they needed to answer to find Christensen guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Miller said, “Alcohol does not absolve Christensen of his crimes. Sober, he was able to effectively lie.” He told jurors that Christensen was not a victim of his ex-wife or his ex-girlfriend.

This was not an alcohol-induced circumstance. He didn’t sober up and feel guilty.”Asst. U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller

“This was not an alcohol-induced circumstance. He didn’t sober up and feel guilty,” he said. In tapes secretly recorded by his ex-girlfriend, Terra Bullis, for the FBI, Christensen bragged about the crime and lied to cover it up, Miller told the jury.

Pollock, Christensen’s attorney, said the jury heard awful things that made them hate Christensen. She described Christensen's recorded conversations with Bullis as problematic.

She told the jurors there were things they didn’t know yet. She asked them to keep their, “hearts and minds open for what’s next.”   

Around 11:30 a.m. Monday, the jury took their instructions and the evidence was moved to their deliberation quarters. Judge Shadid said he had “taken the liberty of ordering lunch.” It was delivered at about 12:15 p.m. The jury ate lunch, and by 1:28 p.m. those following the case were told they had reached a verdict.

The guilty verdict did not come as a surprise. Despite his “not guilty” plea, Christensen was heard on tape talking about the kidnapping, rape and torture of the Chinese scholar. Her DNA was found in multiple places in his apartment, including under his bedroom carpet. Those factors coupled with his defense team’s own admissions made much of the jury’s findings a foregone conclusion.  

Zhang's mother has watched the trial from the overflow room on the first floor of the courthouse. She is visibly having a difficult time bearing the loss of her daughter. When her husband spoke about how horribly they still miss Yingying, and will not give up hope, she cried out in such a way the family paused to try to comfort her.

Photo Credit: Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

 Zhang’s family offered a statement on the federal courthouse steps in Chinese. The family included her mother, father, her brother and her boyfriend. Their attorney translated. The family thanked the jury for what they called “a step toward justice.”

Zhang’s mother sobbed as her father spoke about how the family still misses her tremendously. She cried out as he read into the microphones how the family “cannot imagine the rest of their lives without her.” Her father said they will not give up hope that in some way they may be able to bring her home.

They have been traumatized by the loss of Yingying. Their emotional distress has been, at times, unbearable."Zhang family attorney Zhidong Wang

The family’s attorney, Zhidong Wang, said, “They have been traumatized by the loss of Yingying. Their emotional distress has been, at times, unbearable.” In his statement, Wang thanked a comprehensive list of those involved in the investigation and trial, specifically the U.S. attorneys, who he said, “have kept the family at every stage of the proceedings.

Regarding Christensen’s sentencing, Wang said, “All we can say at this time is that we trust the jury’s decision will be made in the name of justice for Yingying.” 

The jury will return for the penalty phase on July 8. Jurors will decide at that time whether Christensen will spend his life in prison, or receive the death penalty.

Editor's note: This story was updated on June 25 at 5:30am to correct the spelling of defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock's name.

The press started to line up outside the courthouse for post-trial statements Monday afternoon. Local, state, national and international press were present for the trial. More than 40 reporters were credentialled to be in the courtroom. There were also two sketch-artists following the proceeding as no cameras or cellphones were allowed in the courtroom. 

Photo Credit: Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media