UPDATE: Feds to seek death penalty in Christensen case

UPDATE: Feds to seek death penalty in Christensen case

URBANA — Federal prosecutors said Friday they intend to seek the death penalty for accused kidnapper Brendt Christensen, 28, of Champaign.

The notice of intent was filed following the decision and directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Christensen is charged with the kidnapping resulting in death of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, 26, of Urbana, on June 9, 2017.

The government said that the circumstances of the offense are such that, in the event of a conviction, that a death sentence is justified.

Ms. Zhang's family in China reacted through Urbana attorney Steve Beckett.

“Yingying Zhang’s family today received word of the recommendation and order of the attorney general. They express appreciation and respect for the process, including consideration of the family’s wishes in arriving at the decision to seek the death penalty in this case," he said.

"The tragedy of the brutal crime that has harmed their daughter demands the greatest, ultimate punishment. The family’s foremost wish has always been to find Yingying and return her home,” said Beckett.

Knowing that there was likely going to be a decision on the death penalty this week, Beckett said he’s been in close communication with the family and the U.S. Attorney’s office. He relayed the information to the family Friday prior to its public release.

“It’s bad,” Beckett said of their reaction.

“They are very, very emotional. They wanted their daughter to come home and if not, they want her remains to come home. So far, they’ve had nothing,” he said.

The superseding indictment returned against Christensen in October alleges that he held Miss Zhang on June 9 and used a cellphone and Saturn Astra motor vehicle, both instruments of interstate commerce, to commit the crimes.

The notice to seek a sentence of death includes intent factors that allege Christensen acted with intent against the victim and that his intentional acts of violence resulted in her death.

Statutory aggravating factors include that Miss Zhang's death occurred during the commission of a kidnapping; that the offense was committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse; and, that Christensen committed the offense after substantial planning and premeditation.

The notice also alleges non-statutory aggravating factors including Christensen’s “future dangerousness” as evidenced by his “expressed desire to be known as a killer, and his claims of additional victims and expertise in avoiding detection.”

The government cited a 2013 sexual assault and choking of a person as an alleged act of violence committed by Christensen.

Other non-statutory factors cited were victim impact evidence related to Miss Zhang’s loss and the impact of her death upon her family, friends and co-workers; the vulnerability of the victim due to her small stature and limited ability to communicate in English; and, the defendant’s alleged attempt to obstruct the investigation by making false statements to investigators, destroying or concealing the victim’s remains, and sanitizing the crime scene.

Christensen was arrested June 30 and has been in custody since.

Contacted by The News-Gazette, Federal Public Defender Tom Patton gave the following statement on behalf of Christensen’s defense team:

"We were disappointed to learn today that the federal government has elected to seek the ultimate penalty of death against a young recent graduate of the UI with no prior criminal record, in a state whose public policy, like most of the civilized world, rejects capital punishment and for a crime that should more properly be tried in the state courts of Illinois.”

The decision to seek the death penalty is expected to delay the trial, which is currently slated to begin Feb. 27.

Christensen’s court-appointed lawyers, Elisabeth Pollock, George Taseff and Robert Tucker, have already stated that the decision to seek the death penalty would prompt them to seek a continuance. Prosecutors have indicated that they will not object.

Patton declined to speculate how much more time the defense will ask for from Judge Colin Bruce, who said previously he would be open to the request once the government had made a death penalty decision.

The potential for the penalty means more work for all involved, but especially the defense lawyers, who have to prepare for the penalty phase at the same time they are building a defense to Christensen’s alleged crimes.

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Silence Dogood II wrote on January 19, 2018 at 4:01 pm

Many Asian countries pin honor and respect as a top tier life prime directive. They want her or her remains to be brought back home. Of course they want justice as well, but I’m wondering if justice is 2nd to them and they’d be willing to trade death for life just for her or her remains and to get closure of this. Of course there’s probably the variable that he just doesn’t care whether he lives or dies.

abc123 wrote on January 19, 2018 at 5:01 pm

Good the for federal prosecutors.  Certainly sounds like this guy deserves it.

Khristine wrote on January 19, 2018 at 6:01 pm
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“The government cited a 2013 sexual assault and choking of a person as an alleged act of violence committed by Christensen.”

This wasn’t his first time? Why was this guy enrolled in a graduate program at the UI if he was potentially sexually dangerous? Ugh. 

rsp wrote on January 20, 2018 at 5:01 pm

Maybe it wasn't a conviction? Maybe they have evidence of it.

GLG wrote on January 21, 2018 at 10:01 am

Why is James Kilgore employed? Why was William, "Billy the bomber" Ayers employed by the University? One a convicted murderer and the other a domestic terrorist who stayed out of prison when the FBI botched its case and Ayers walked.

Lets hope this trial is a quick one and Christensen is found guilty and executed ASAP! Have a nice trip to hell Brent, thats where you belong!!