U Of I Colleagues Describe Christensen As Promising Student Who Lost His Way

Federal courthouse in Peoria.

Members of the news media wait outside the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Peoria, where the trial of Brendt Christensen is in its sentencing phase.

Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

The sentencing phase of the Brendt Christensen trial enters its fifth day Friday. Federal public defenders called eight witnesses Thursday in their effort to save him from the death penalty. 

Christensen faces a sentence of either life in prison or the death penalty, after being found guilty last month of the 2017 kidnapping and murder of Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

U of I professors and staff who worked with Christensen took the witness stand to describe him as a smart person and a promising candidate for a Ph.D. in physics. However, they say he became less engaged in the fall of 2016, dropping out of the Ph.D. program, and settling for a master’s degree instead.

Defense attorneys also wanted to bring in a U of I psychiatrist who treated Christensen for depression in the months before Zhang was killed. But prosecutors raised objections, noting that the defense had withdrawn a mental health argument in pretrial proceedings in April. 

The doctor ultimately was not called to testify, despite having driven from Champaign to Peoria for the court appearance.  

Christensen’s ex-wife, Michelle Zortman, who testified in the first part of his trial last month, is expected to take the stand again on Friday. The defense also plans to call Christensen’s sister and mother to the stand before they rest their case. His father has been in attendance throughout the trial, and has also testified. But other family members have not. 

Judge Jim Shadid told jurors they could get the case next week.

UPDATE: This story replaces an earlier, shorter version. - JM 11:16 PM 7/11/19)

Story source: WILL