PEORIA — Jurors on Friday heard another day of testimony as they consider whether Brendt Christensen should be sentenced to death for kidnapping and killing 26-year-old Yingying Zhang in 2017.

Herald & Review media partner WCIA reported that those taking the stand included several counselors at the University of Illinois, where Zhang was a visiting scholar from China and Christensen had been a doctoral student. Christensen’s ex-wife, Michelle Zortman, also testified for a second time.

The testimony was heard by the jury that convicted Christensen last month in the Zhang's death. The same jurors are hearing from witnesses during the penalty phase for Christensen and will decide if he should be given a death sentence. Illinois no longer has capital punishment, but Christensen could be sentenced to death because he was convicted in federal court.

Prosecutors say Christensen raped, choked and stabbed Zhang before beating her with a baseball bat and decapitating her. Her body was never found, and her father has said the family still wishes to “find Yingying and bring her home.”

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Defense attorneys have argued that Christensen should not be executed, saying he struggled with mental health issues for years and tried to get help in the months before killing Zhang.

Counselors on Friday testified about interactions with Christensen before he killed Zhang, WCIA reported. Defense attorneys also read out portions of an assessment done on Christensen for intake at the center, showing he ranked high on the scales for depression, academic distress, eating concerns, substance abuse and general distress, but relatively low on the hostility scale.

Zhang’s parents testified on Tuesday about the grief and pain they feel. Christensen’s father took the stand Wednesday, testifying about his son’s childhood night terrors and his love of animals, as well as about his mother’s alcoholism.

Christensen's defense team said they hope to finish Monday or Tuesday.


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