Federal prosecutors on Wednesday urged the jury that found Brendt Christensen guilty in the kidnapping and killing of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang to make him the first federal felon in Illinois to be sent to death row in more than a decade.
"The time has come. Justice must be done," U.S. Attorney James Nelson said in his closing statement Wednesday. "Sentence Brendt Christensen to death."
If the jury unanimously decides Christensen should receive a death sentence, he would be the first person to be sentenced to death in a federal courtroom in Illinois since 2006. Capital punishment was abolished in state courts in 2011, a decade after a moratorium was put on the practice.
Deliberations began early Wednesday afternoon after jurors heard from both sides and ended about 5 p.m. The jury is set to reconvene at 9 a.m. Thursday.
Over several days in the death penalty hearing, Christensen's attorneys presented testimony from his parents and sister, close friends and correctional officers who have interacted with him over the two years he's been incarcerated.
Even if the jury chooses a sentence of life behind bars, he will be leaving prison "in a coffin," defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock told the jury in her closing statement.
The defense attorneys have "stood with Brendt for almost two years," Pollock said tearfully, leaving the lectern to stand behind Christensen.
"Remember he is a whole person," Pollock said. "He is not the worst thing he ever did."
Christensen faces the death penalty for kidnapping and killing Zhang on June 9, 2017. Prosecutors have argued that he picked up Zhang on the University of Illinois campus after she had missed her bus, then took her back to his apartment, where he sexually assaulted her, tortured her, beat her with a baseball bat and decapitated her.
Zhang had traveled to Champaign-Urbana earlier that year from China. Prosecutors told the jury she was pursuing a doctoral degree and ultimately wanted to return to China to be a professor. Zhang's fiancé, parents and brother are in Peoria for the trial.
Among the aggravating factors prosecutors have presented over the past week and a half in making a case for the death penalty are that Christensen acted in a "heinous, cruel or depraved" manner, that the crime involved substantial planning or premeditation and that the death occurred during the commission of another crime.
Prosecutors also argue that Christensen showed a lack of remorse for killing Zhang and that Zhang was particularly vulnerable because of her small stature and limited English-speaking abilities. They also accused Christensen of obstructing the investigation by making false statements and destroying or concealing the victim's remains.
Zhang's body has not been recovered.
Prosecutors on Wednesday again showed jurors a photo from a 2017 vigil weeks after Zhang's disappearance. Her family members, who had traveled from China to search for her, stand surrounded by a crowd, while Christensen stands on stairs in the background.
"This picture is all you need to see, ladies and gentlemen," Nelson said. "This is a lack of remorse."
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After eight days of testimony during the guilt phase of the trial, the jury deliberated for less than two hours before rendering a guilty verdict. In considering the death penalty, jurors are instructed to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors presented by the attorneys. Even if the jury were to find for all of the aggravating factors and no mitigating factors, it still could elect to sentence Christensen to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Pollock told jurors.
"The law gives each one of you the ability to temper justice with mercy," she said.
The only remaining question is whether Christensen dies at the end of his natural life or it "ends with a needle and drugs and a date set by the government," Pollock said.
In their opening statements during the guilt phase of the trial last month, Christensen's defense attorneys immediately acknowledged he killed Zhang. The dozens of mitigating factors the defense has presented are not an attempt to excuse or justify what Christensen did but to present a fuller picture of him as a person, Pollock told the jurors.
"It is horrible what they've gone through," she said of Zhang's family.
Pollock turned to where they were sitting in the courtroom and said, "I'm sorry."
Christensen's ex-girlfriend, Terra Bullis, wore a wire for the FBI in June 2017 to record a series of their conversations following Zhang's disappearance. Nearly three weeks after Zhang's disappearance, Christensen told Bullis in detail how he killed Zhang, while the two attended a vigil for the missing scholar. He was arrested the next day.
Christensen claimed that Zhang was his 13th victim during that conversation with Bullis. An FBI agent testified last month that no evidence has been uncovered linking Christensen to another murder. Pollock said he "lied through his teeth."
"It was just theater," Pollock said. "It's not who Brendt is."
Christensen was a gentle child, a good brother and friend, and a "rule follower" for most of his life, Pollock said.
The defense team highlighted mental illness and substance abuse on both sides of Christensen's family, including his mother's depression and severe alcoholism when he was a child. Christensen's attorneys told the jury about a suicidal episode Christensen had when he was 15, that night terrors have plagued him for much of his life and that drug and alcohol abuse contributed to a downward spiral that saw his grades plummet at the University of Illinois and his marriage flounder.
Christensen made a "good-faith" effort to grapple with his dark thoughts and sought help at a university counseling center in 2017, which was one of about 50 mitigating factors defense attorneys presented for the jury to consider in making a case for sparing Christensen's life.
Christensen told his then-wife, with whom he was in an open marriage, Bullis and counselors about his "twisted thoughts," Pollock said.
During a meeting with a counselor in 2017, Christensen confessed that he was having homicidal thoughts and that he had a plan for how he would commit a murder.
Defense attorneys said Christensen has suffered symptoms of anxiety and depression throughout his life; the breakdown of his marriage caused severe emotional distress; and the counseling center did not conduct a follow-up with him after he met with a counselor.
Christensen did not testify, which is not something the jury is able to factor into its sentencing decision.