News Local/State

Christensen’s Mother, Sister & Jailers Testify In His Defense

Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in Peoria.

The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Peoria, where Brendt Christensen is being tried in federal court for the 2017 kidnapping & murder of Yingying Zhang. Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

Brendt Christensen’s mother and sister say they still love him, even after learning he kidnapped and murdered U of I visiting scholar Yingying Zhang in 2017. Both family members testified Monday in the sentencing phase of Christensen’s federal trial in Peoria.

Ellen Williams described her son Brendt as a gentle and happy child growing up, active in sports and good at school. But Williams says her son was troubled as a child by night terrors and migraine headaches, and was diagnosed with PTSD after a fall from a roof.

Andrea Christensen says life growing up was strained by her mother’s alcoholism and her parents’ failing marriage. But she testified that she always looked up to her brother Brendt.

Christensen’s mother and sister said they were shocked to learn that the defendant had kidnapped and killed Yingying Zhang. Ellen Williams said she thought of the suffering of Zhang’s family several times a day. But both she and Andrea Christensen said their love for Brendt Christensen was unconditional, with Williams testifying that she understood her son’s decision to lie to her, denying that he killed Zhang, prior to defense attorneys conceding his guilt in the opening arguments of the trial.

Earlier on Monday, the defense presented testimony from Christensen’s jailers. The defendant spent 20 months awaiting trial at the Livingston County Jail in Pontiac (upon arrest, Christensen was held at the Macon County Jail in Decatur; during the trial, he has been held at the Peoria County Jail).

The Livingston County Jail’s superintendent and three correctional officers testified that Christensen would stay up late nights reading and writing. They say he generally followed the rules, except for one incident, in which he tried to conceal another inmate’s use of a “stinger”, an illegal homemade device for heating water or food.

The testimony about Christensen’s good behavior in jail, and testimony from his mother and sister expressing affection and showing concern for him, are part of the defense’s efforts to place Christensen in as positive a light as they can, for the jury which will decide if the former U of I doctoral student receives life in prison or the death penalty.

With the jury out of the courtroom, attorneys and Judge Jim Shadid debated to what degree the defense team would be allowed to bring up mental health issues in closing arguments, given that a formal mental illness defense was withdrawn before the trial began. It may be, however, that the defense will try to bring up the issue of mental health, while steering clear of a specific diagnosis of Christensen's condition.

The prosecution is expected to present rebuttal witnesses on Tuesday, with closing arguments on Wednesday. The jury could sentence Christensen to life imprisonment or the death penalty, but in the case of the latter, the jurors must agree unanimously.

Christensen confirmed that he will remain silent during his trial. In reply to a question from Judge Jim Shadid, Christensen said he would not be making any statement on his own behalf. Judge Shadid stated his wish to make it clear that Christensen's decision either way should not, in itself, be used by the jury in arriving at its decision.

UPDATE: This article has been expanded to include additional information. - JM 1:52 AM 7/16/19