PEORIA — Jurors began deliberations Wednesday on whether a former University of Illinois doctoral student should be put to death for the brutal slaying of a scholar from China he abducted at a bus stop.
Brendt Christensen's attorney, Elisabeth Pollock, teared up during closing arguments in the penalty phase in U.S. District Court in Peoria, at one point walking behind her 30-year-old client and putting her hands on his shoulders.
"He is a whole person," Pollock said, looking across the room at jurors. "He is not just the worst thing he ever did."
But prosecutors reminded jurors of a secret FBI recording in which Christensen laughed as he described luring 26-year-old Yingying Zhang into his car when she was running late to sign an apartment lease on June 9, 2017. He later raped, choked and stabbed her as she fought back, then beat her to death with a bat and cut off her head. Her body was never found.
"Evil does exist," prosecutor Eugene Miller told jurors. "What the defendant did was evil."
Pollock sought to humanize Christensen, telling jurors how he once bought a stuffed toy his sister wanted using his allowance money.
All 12 jurors must agree to impose the death penalty. If even one opposes execution, the 30-year-old would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Pollock told jurors that he did kill Zhang, something the defense admitted at the outset of his trial last month. She said he would die in prison whether by natural causes or lethal injection.
"He is leaving prison in a casket. The only question is when," she said.
The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen at the trial last month. Deliberations during the current penalty phase were almost certain to last longer, with a complicated series of questions jurors must answer before a decision.
In his remarks, prosecutor James Nelson told jurors the slaying Zhang, who Christensen didn't know, was part of the fulfillment of Christensen's fantasy to become infamous as a killer and that he planned carrying out a murder coldly and meticulously.
"The defendant killed Yingying for sport," he said, adding that death was the only just punishment for a crime so "horrific."
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Prosecutors said the muscular Christensen likely forced the 5-foot-4 Zhang into a 6-foot-long duffel bag he bought online days before to carry her up to his apartment in Urbana, Champaign's sister city 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
Nelson reminded jurors of testimony about how Christensen was in awe at how Zhang resisted. He thought she was dead at one point and stabbed her in the neck, only for her to grab the knife, Nelson said. "She just wouldn't die," Christensen was heard saying on the recording. He decapitated her to ensure she was dead.
Raising his voice and pointing at Christensen at the defense table, Nelson said: "She didn't want that man to be the last man she saw on earth. ... He erased her from this earth."
Jurors shouldn't be swayed by photographs and videos the defense showing Christensen as an outwardly sweet, kind child, Nelson added.
"Sometimes innocent children grow up to be cruel," he said.
Christensen never publicly revealed what he did with Zhang's remains. He declined to testify during the penalty phase, when he could have apologized and explained how he disposed of the body.
But his lawyer, Pollock, did appear to apologize on his behalf, at one point saying "I'm sorry" to Zhang's father on a front bench.
Christensen father and mother were also in court, several times shedding tears as lawyers spoke of their son. Christensen showed no outward emotion during closings.
Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but Christensen was prosecuted under federal law, which allows for it. If he is sentenced to death, a long appeals process is expected before he would be executed by lethal injection in Indiana.