CHICAGO — Jurors deciding whether Brendt Christensen should be sentenced to death for the kidnapping and slaying of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang heard emotional testimony Monday from her fiance and some of her best friends as the trial's penalty phase got underway.
"She's the best girl I've ever met," Xiaolin Hou said of the 26-year-old he planned to marry.
Christensen, 30, was found guilty two weeks ago of charges stemming from the June 2017 abduction of Zhang, a scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The same jury is now considering his punishment.
Whatever jurors decide, Christensen will die in prison -- either at the end of his natural life or by execution, defense attorney Julie Brain said during her opening statement.
"He will be punished for (his crime) severely -- your guilty verdict will make sure of that," Brain said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Nelson called the kidnapping and slaying of Zhang "cold, calculated, cruel and months in the making." Christensen was plotting to kill someone even as Zhang was preparing to travel to the United States from China, Nelson said.
Zhang was on her way to sign a lease for a new apartment on June 9, 2017, when she missed a bus and Christensen approached her in his car. Prosecutors said he posed as an undercover police officer and offered her a ride. A video camera captured her getting into his car.
According to statements he made in a conversation recorded for the FBI by his then-girlfriend, Christensen took Zhang to his apartment, sexually assaulted her, choked her and beat her to death with a baseball bat.
Zhang's body has not been recovered, which has created "anguish" for her family, Nelson said Monday.
"There would be no proper burial, there would be no closure," he said.
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Nelson also read a quote that Zhang had written in her journal: "Life is too short to be ordinary." The quote was one of the last things written in the journal before Zhang disappeared.
"When she wrote this, Yingying had no idea how short her life would be," Nelson said.
While Zhang's fiance was in the courtroom, interviews with close friends and college roommates of the victim were shown on video and translated from Chinese to English.
Friends described her as a "free spirit" and "warmhearted." One friend described how excited Zhang was about the woman's pregnancy, and how Zhang had spoken about her desire to one day become a mother herself.
Prosecutors also played a video of Zhang singing the pop song "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne in English.
On the first day of testimony in his criminal trial, Christensen's attorneys admitted he committed the crime. In making the case Christensen should not be executed, they plan to present mitigating factors that include a mother who was treated for severe depression and a history of mental illness on both sides of his family. Christensen displayed symptoms of depression and anxiety throughout his life and sought professional counseling for his substance abuse problems, they said.
Brain told jurors that after Christensen moved to Champaign as a student at the University of Illinois, he began to struggle academically and his marriage began to fall apart.
"What happened next was a four-year battle between Brendt and his demons that little by little, he lost," Brain said.
Zhang's father and brother are expected to testify in court Tuesday. Christensen's father is expected to testify this week.
Illinois abolished capital punishment in 2011 and put a moratorium on the practice 11 years before that. But federal prosecutors can still seek the death penalty in states that have abolished capital punishment. Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in 2015 in a federal trial in Massachusetts, which has banned the practice at the state level.
It's been more than 13 years since someone was sentenced to death in a federal courtroom in Illinois. In 2006, a judge affirmed a jury's sentence of death for Dr. Ronald Mikos, who was convicted of killing a former patient slated to testify against him in a Medicare fraud trial. Mikos remains on death row in the maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind.