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Tearful Testimony From Father Of Christensen As Sentencing Phase Continues

Defendant's father Mike Christensen, with defense attorneys Julie Brain and Elisabeth Pollock.

Left to right: Mike Christensen, the father of Brendt Christensen, leaves the federal courthouse in Peoria, accompanied by public defenders Julie Brain and Elisabeth Pollock. Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

Federal public defenders continued to present character witnesses in a Peoria courtroom Wednesday, in the sentencing phase of Brendt Christensen’s kidnapping murder trial. Seven witnesses, including Christensen’s father, testified in support of the defendant, who at times shed tears that had been rarely seen before.

The defense is trying to prove mitigating factors, to convince the jury that found Christensen guilty to choose a life prison sentence for him, instead of the death penalty. Christensen was convicted two weeks ago of kidnapping and killing University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang in June 2017. Federal prosecutors rested their case for the death penalty on Tuesday, after presenting testimony for aggravating factors that would justify the death penalty.

Mike Christensen, took the witness stand to express his unconditional love for his son, and to answer questions about his home life growing up. The elder Christensen struggled through tears in testifying that he could not bear the thought of his son being put to death. U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid used the moment to call for the mid-morning break. Mike Christensen was visibly shaking as he was led out of the courtroom. Brendt Christensen tried to wipe away tears as U.S. Marshals placed handcuffs on his wrists.

Mark Christensen, the defendant’s paternal uncle, took the stand next. He laid out a family history of alcoholism and mental illness, but said he could not square the young person he knew as his nephew, with the crimes for which he was convicted.    

The jury also heard from Brendt Christensen’s maternal uncle.  Robert Lahmann offered a history of depression in the defendant’s mother’s family, but said he could not understand how Christensen got to the “awful” things he was convicted of doing.

“Something must have happened to him,” Lahmann said of his nephew. He also said he didn’t think his sister could handle it if her son was executed.

Christensen’s 3rd and 4th grade teacher, Jeanette Handrich, brought with her a scrapbook of her time teaching the gifted program at the defendant’s primary school. It showed pictures Brendt Christensen as a young happy child.   

Also testifying was a close friend of Christensen’s mother, Debbie Mitchell. Mitchell, who said she’s known the defendant since infancy, described his mother’s challenges with depression and alcoholism. She also described how she sent supportive messages to Christensen, with updates on how his mother was doing. The correspondence continued until November 2016, about seven months before Yingying Zhang’s disappearance and Christensen’s arrest. Mitchell told the jury, that despite the acts for which he is convicted, she still loved him like her own son, causing Christensen’s eyes to again well with tears.      

Mitchell’s son, and Christensen’s boyhood friend, Tom Mitchell, described childhood play where the defendant would take apart his mechanical toys and not be able to put them back together. He said sometimes he would get mad and hit Christensen, who would never hit back, despite being bigger. Tom Mitchell also talked about going on Cub Scout and Boy Scout camping trips with Christensen, as well as on family outings. He remembered nights during sleepovers, when Christensen woke with night terrors and didn’t seem fully awake. He also mentioned the defendant’s mother’s apparent depression and dependence on alcohol when they were young boys.    

Another close friend, Andrew Kieper, knew Brendt Christensen in high school, and later, was the best man at his wedding. He described Christensen as a smart but normal guy who supported him, when both competed in the high school track team. Kieper described how he put $50 in Christensen’s jailhouse account after his arrest, so he could make phone calls.      

All seven people who took the stand for Christensen expressed confusion or said they couldn’t understand he could have committed the crimes for which he was convicted.

Yingying Zhang’s family spent little time in the courtroom Wednesday, with the exception of her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou. He gave his victim impact witness statement earlier in the week. The couple were planning to be married about four months after Zhang disappeared, and Hou testified that her disappearance and death changed the course of his entire life.        

Public defenders are expected to present more testimony on Christensen’s behalf, when court resume at 9:00 A.M. Thursday.

UPDATE: This article has been revised and expanded. - JM 9:42 P.M. 7/10/19