News Local/State

Yingying Zhang’s Family, Loved Ones, Testify In Christensen Trial

The van believed to be carrying Brendt Christensen leaves the federal courthouse in Peoria.

The van believed to be carrying Brendt Christensen leaves the federal courthouse in Peoria. Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media

There were emotional moments at the federal courthouse in Peoria Tuesday, as family and loved ones of Yingying Zhang testified during the sentencing phase of the Brendt Christensen trial.

A jury is considering whether to sentence the former doctoral student to death or to life in prison, after finding him guilty of the 2017 kidnapping and murder of Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois..

Early in the day, Zhang’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, was on the stand. When U.S. Prosecutor Eugene Miller asked him what Zhang’s loss meant to him, Hou said it had changed his life. But he also spoke about the pain Zhang must have suffered at the hands of the defendant, who he called a criminal.

The statement caused Christensen’s defense team to ask Judge Jim Shadid to declare a mistrial. “That bell can’t be un-rung,” lead federal public defender Beth Pollock told the judge, during a break in the proceedings.

Shadid denied the motion for mistrial, and instead instructed jurors to disregard the testimony from Hou about the crime. Such speculation by family and friends of the victim about the crime and the defendant is not allowed during the sentencing phase.

In afternoon testimony, Zhang’s father broke down, when shown a 2017 photo of himself, his daughter and his wife. The photo was taken on the last occasion in which time Ronggao Zhang saw his daughter, made as she prepared to board a train in China, as she began her trip to the University of Illinois.

Christensen, who had shown little emotion during the trial, was seen with his head down and his eyes closed at this point, an apparent effort to conceal tears. Public Defender Robert Tucker spoke quietly with Christensen and discretely handed him a tissue, while other members of the defense team conferenced at the bench with the judge.

The incident occurred right before the jury was shown video of the testimony of Zhang’s mother. She cried as she talked about how she wanted her daughter to finish with her studies as she was planning to be married in four months after she went missing. Lifeng Ye sobbed as she spoke about wanting to see her only daughter in a wedding gown. She continued to cry as she spoke of how her daughter wanted to have children and that she would never get to hold a grandbaby.  

Zhang’s father told the jury his wife was depressed and that he was not doing well either, how they haven’t had a good night’s sleep in the two years since their daughter has been gone. Ronggao Zhang questioned his own ability to go on in his daughter’s absence.

Taped conversations prosecutors had in China with the aid of an interpreter were also played for the jury. That include one of Zhang’s high school friends and roommates from college, as well a teacher. All spoke at length about her intelligence and dedication to her studies, her strength of character, her exuberance for life and desire to help those who were less fortunate.

Still later in the day, the prosecution replayed undercover recordings of Christensen talking to his then-girlfriend Terra Bullis in 2017. Christensen was again heard detailing how hard he says Zhang fought for her life, and laughing before stating that he chopped her head off to ensure she was dead. Again, he was heard saying of Zhang that “there was nothing to her” and that he noted his failure to reach sexual climax while evidently raping her.

The jury also heard again portions of recorded jailhouse phone conversations Christensen has had while in jail after his arrest. But the last of these recordings was a new one, of Christensen talking to his ex-wife, Michelle Zortman, on June 19th, after the trial had begun.

In the recording, Zortman is heard talking about how Christensen’s former girlfriend, Terra Bullis, was to take the stand for the prosecution later that day. Zortman is heard saying she hopes Bullis can’t take the pressure of the situation, and has to be carried out on a stretcher. Christensen is heard repeated saying, “I have no comment,” four times in a row at one point.

On Wednesday, Christensen’s defense team is expected to begin presenting the 50 or so mitigating factors it argues should be sufficient cause to spare Christensen from execution. Christensen’s father, Michael, is to be their first witness. Defense attorney Beth Pollock told the judge on Tuesday that they had other witnesses scheduled that would take the trial’s sentencing phase into Friday and Monday.

NOTE: This story has been expanded to include additional details. - JM 10:27 PM 7/9/19

Follow Tanya Koonce on Twitter at @tkoonce.