Jury Begins Deliberations On Life Sentence Or Death Penalty For Brendt Christensen

July 17, 2019
 
Federal courthouse in Peoria.

A TV news crew stands outside the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Peoria, earlier during the trial of Brendt Christensen. A jury is deliberating at the courthouse on a sentence --- either life in prison or the death penalty --- for Christensen, convicted of the 2017 kidnapping and murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang.

Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

The jury has begun deliberating on the question of sentencing for the man convicted of the 2017 kidnapping and murder of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang. Jurors received Brendt Christensen’s capital case about 1:40 p.m. Wednesday afternoon.

Attorneys delivered more than three-hours of closing statements before the jury moved to their deliberation room at the federal courthouse in Peoria. The special jury form they have to fill out is about 27 pages long. The legal complexities elicited a series of questions for U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid during the first hours of deliberations. 

Prosecution: "Common Sense Test"

In closing remarks, U-S Prosecutor Eugene Miller used what seemed like a veiled reference to the decision-making awaiting the jurors. He told them they could play “a trump card” by applying the “common sense test” to the narrative presented by the defense, to  see if it makes sense.

But even if jurors conclude that the murder of Yingying Zhang technically meets a standard that justifies the death penalty, they could still choose a life prison sentence for Christensen instead, relying on what is called the “mercy”  option.

For that reason, Miller offered jurors the “common sense test,” asking them to find the death penalty suitable for the crime. The crime, co-prosecutor Jim Nelson said, in Christensen’s “own words meets the definition of depraved, and heinous, shockingly evil, and cruel.”    

Nelson showed jurors the baseball bat that Christensen said (in a conversation recorded by his girlfriend for FBI investigators) that he used to hit Zhang. He showed them a six-foot long duffle bag identical to one Christensen said he lost, that’s never been recovered. Zhang’s body has not been recovered and Christensen had said it never will.  

Nelson also showed the jury photographs taken by investigators of bloodstains in Christensen’s bedroom, photos they had first been shown in the guilt phase of his trial. 

Nelson said, Christensen “kidnapped, raped, bludgeoned, stabbed, and decapitated” Yingying Zhang, “because he felt like it. On one-hand he’s smart, seemingly normal and on the other,  a cold blooded killer,” who planned out the kidnapping on a social networking website for people interested in BDSM and fetishism. “None of the mitigating factors can mitigate the monstrosity of this act.”

Defense: "Not Just The Worst Of What He's Done"

In the defense team’s closing arguments, Public Defender Elisabeth Pollock reminded jurors that each of them had to decide for themselves how to sentence Christensen, according to their own moral code.  She argued that there was no chance of a light sentence for the defendant, saying “he will leave prison in a casket. It’s only a question of when.” Pollock then explained some rules of law that are to guide juror’s decisions on the aggravating and mitigating factors. “You each possess your own scale to weigh the aggravating and mitigating factors,” she said. Pushing back against prosecutors “common sense test” argument, Pollock talked to the jury about the “mercy” option. “Each of you have the ability to temper justice with mercy,” she said. 

Pollock then shifted her focus from Brendt Christensen’s crime to Christensen himself. The government’s case focused on a three-month period in Brendt Christensen’s life. “That’s their job,” she said. But her job, she told them, was to show them, “the entirety of his life.” 

Pollock said, “it’s horrible what Yingying Zhang’s family has been through. But nothing will repair it.” Then she looked directly at members of Zhang’s family sitting in the courtroom, and said, “I’m sorry.”  She worked through some of the mitigating factors for the jury to remember: he’s been a model prisoner, he follows the rules, he had no prior criminal or violent history, not even a traffic ticket. 

Pollock said Christensen’s good conduct “does not excuse the fact he killed her, but it’s also not all and completely who he was.” She noted the U of I counseling sessions the defendant attended a few months before killing Zhang. Pollock reminded jurors that Christensen told a counselor he was having thoughts of harming someone, but he also told them he, “didn’t want to be that person.”  

Pollock said the U of I Counseling Center situation was not for the jury to decide, but was for another lawsuit, referring to a suit filed in June against the university, in the name of Yingying Zhang’s estate. “Except for: does someone deserve to die who went for help and says all the things he did?” 

Pollock referenced Christensen telling his counselors how he “fantasized about killing”, fantasies that had gone “pretty far down the path,” that he had purchased things to “transport and dispose of a body.” But, she argued, the U of I Counseling Center did not follow up. Pollock said, “does he (Christensen) deserve to die because of the good faith effort he made to help himself? Now it’s too late, but does he deserve to die for that?” 

“It’s your duty to deliberate, to consult with each other, but never surrender your personal conviction to get unanimity, even if you are the one who doesn’t agree,” Pollock said. “When you go to the jury room, remember he is a whole person, not just the worst of what he’s done.” 

The jury ended their first day of deliberations at 5:00 p.m. Wednesday and are to resume Thursday morning at 9:00 a.m. 

(UPDATE: This article has been revised and expanded. - JM 10:47 PM 7/17/19)

Story source: WILL