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Closing Arguments Set For Wednesday in Christensen Trial Sentencing Phase

Federal Public Defender George Taseff.

Federal Public Defender George Taseff leaving the Federal Building & US Courthouse in Peoria. Taseff represented Brendt Christensen, who was convicted for the 2017 kidnapping and murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang. Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

The sentencing phase of Brendt Christensen’s federal death penalty trial will go to the jury Wednesday. There’s only one question the jury at the federal courthouse in Peoria needs to answer, and that’s whether Christensen will receive the death penalty or life in prison, for the 2017 kidnapping murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang.

Surveillance video showed Zhang getting into Christensen’s SUV on the U of I Urbana campus on June 9, 2017. She has not been seen since. 

The jury had little question about the defendant’s guilt when deciding their verdict last month. Christensen’s federal public defender, George Taseff, conceded in his opening statement, “He did it! He killed her.” But the sentencing decision is not as clear-cut.

The first 40 minutes of the day in court was spent with the attorneys wrangling over remaining motions and whether the jury would be allowed to consider certain aspects of the aggravating or mitigating factors the two parties have presented. Those matters included Christensen’s mental health and related medication issues raised during the penalty phase. 

Attorneys also debated the implications of a photograph submitted as evidence by the defense team, of a teenage Christensen having what seemed a normal relationship with the family, the content of recordings of his jailhouse phone calls and a motion from prosecutors to exclude a random SpongeBob SquarePants reference Christensen made to his then-girlfriend, Terra Bullis, in a conversation she secretly recorded for the FBI. To that,  defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock told Judge Jim Shadid, "I can categorically represent that I am not going to bring up SpongeBob SquarePants in my closing statements." That brought laughter in the courtroom. 

Eventually, the jury was brought in. Government prosecutors and the defense team wrapped up their evidence for the penalty phase of the trial fairly quickly. The defense rested and the government prosecutors had a chance to redirect. They called a single witness who had been on the stand multiple times: FBI Special Agent Andrew Huckstadt. He was the  Agent In-Charge of the Case and has been in the courtroom for the entire trial. 

Prosecutors replayed portions of recorded phone conversations Christensen’s had with his family since he’s been in jail. They did that with Huckstadt on the stand, as he had secured the tapes for federal prosecutors. Prosecutors were aiming to clean up or refute things the defense had presented. It was a short presentation, and so was the cross-examination by defense attorney Pollock.  

Jurors were recessed at mid-morning,  and attorneys spent the rest of the day negotiating word by word, and phrase by phrase, the instructions the jury will receive to guide their deliberations. 

Jurors return to the courtroom Wednesday about 9:00 A.M.,  to hear Judge Shadid’s instructions before the attorneys’ closing statements. And then deliberations on Christensen's sentence will begin.