PEORIA — Brendt Christensen’s lawyers began making their case Wednesday on why they think their client shouldn’t receive the death penalty while trying to avoid bringing attention to the fact that he kidnapped and killed Yingying Zhang.
When questioning his childhood friends, third-grade teacher, uncles and father, they’ve focused on his family’s history of mental-health and alcohol issues and how good a child he was, smiling at memories of Christensen in a Power Rangers costume and a going-away dinner before he left Wisconsin for the University of Illinois.
But when Christensen’s crime inevitably came up toward the end of questioning and they were asked if they could reconcile it with the man they knew, it almost always brought Christensen’s family and friends to tears on the witness stand.
NEW: Christensen’s friends from childhood and high school took the stand: 'I was completely and absolutely taken aback. One-hundred-percent shocked.'
“The young man I knew was brought up well, had his head on straight. He had passion,” said his third-grade teacher, Jeanette Handrich. “I just couldn’t understand what had happened.”
“I wish I could give him a hug,” she said while crying.
“I was completely and absolutely taken aback,” said Andrew Kieper, his high school friend and the best man at his wedding.
“It’s awful, heartbreaking,” said Robert Lahmann, his uncle. “I can’t reconcile it. For that to occur, there had to have been something that was wrong.”
“It’s horrendous. It’s a travesty,” said Mark Christensen, another uncle. “It’s unimaginable. It’s not Brendt. I don’t know what happened.”
Asked if he had anything to say to Ms. Zhang’s family, Christensen’s father, Michael, struggled to speak through his tears, saying, “I’m sorry my son was the cause of their pain.”
Brendt Christensen also cried as his father spoke, his face turning red, and his attorneys put their arm around him.
As for the guilty verdict, “It was expected. The jury did what they had to do,” he said. “Brendt agreed.”
If Christensen received life in prison, Michael Christensen said he’d continue to support his son.
“I have to,” he said.
And he can’t think about his son actually being killed by lethal injection.
“A death sentence I could handle, but not the actual death,” he said.
A couple days ago, he pictured Christensen “on the table, but I had to stop. I can’t think of that too much.”
Michael Christensen has been attending the entire trial, driving down from his remote home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in a 2001 minivan he repaired and staying at a campground.
“I’m his parent. I had to be here. I love him,” he said. “Nothing’s going to stop that. I have no choice.”
Recalling his childhood
The defense is now trying to convince the same jury that found Christensen guilty last month to give him the lesser of his two possible punishments — life in prison without the possibility of release — instead of the death penalty.
On Wednesday morning, the prosecution formally rested its case in favor of the latter, in which the jury heard from Ms. Zhang’s father, mother, brother, fiance, one of her teachers and several of her friends from China.
Her parents in particular described how they struggle to live day-to-day, not able to sleep or concentrate, especially without being able to bring their daughter’s body back to China.
The defense is now trying to humanize for the jury a person they heard describing on a wire recording how he said he brutally killed Ms. Zhang and boasting that she’d never be found.
Several of Christensen’s family members and friends described Christensen as a bright and polite child, active in Cub Scouts with his childhood friend, Tom Mitchell, who was born on the same day in the same hospital as Christensen.
They’d celebrate their birthday together, regularly slept over at each other’s house and went trick-or-treating together.
Christensen would be interested in the mechanics of his toys and break them, said Mitchell, who would hit Christensen.
“He never hit me back,” Mitchell said, calling him a “gentle giant.”
Christensen’s father, who called his son Mr. B, described his son’s carrot-shaped Pinewood Derby car, and later, Christensen’s time on the football and track and field teams.
Michael Christensen and Mitchell also described some of the issues Christensen faced as a child.
When he was young, he would have night terrors and would walk in his sleep, they said.
When he was 15 years old, Christensen had another night terror when he was sick and sleep deprived, his father said.
He jumped off the second-floor deck, falling about 12 feet in an apparent attempt to kill himself, then ran into an oncoming van, which stopped before it hit Christensen.
“Eventually he woke up,” his father said.
Doctors ruled out drugs, Michael Christensen said, and figured it wouldn’t happen again, though Brendt Christensen emailed his dad in 2016 saying he still had night terrors.
He also fell several feet during a construction accident when he was 19 years old. He dislocated and broke his left elbow and shattered his right wrist, his dad said, and was prescribed pain medications.
While he struggled at times in high school and college, Christensen would graduate from high school, attend a technical college before transferring to University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and then to UW-Madison, from which he graduated in 2013.
He also started dating his now ex-wife, Michelle Zortman, who he met while working at a Kmart grocery store and married at a simple wedding in a hotel in Madison.
Christensen’s family members also described the alcoholism and mental health issues in his family.
His mom eventually became an alcoholic, Christensen’s father said, and would drive her kids around while drunk.
Mitchell said she was clearly lonely and would talk with anyone who would listen to her. And he said his mother warned him not to let Christensen’s mother drive him anywhere if she appeared drunk.
His grandpa was also an alcoholic, according to Christensen’s father and his uncle, Mark Christensen.
Mark Christensen said he was also an alcoholic, as was his son and his aunt. He said another aunt was schizophrenic and suicidal.
Once, he said, his son went missing for five or six hours, and Mark Christensen was worried his son had killed himself but relieved when he was found at a detoxification center.
On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller asked if it’s fair to say it’s fairly distressing to look for your child for five to six hours when you don’t know where they are.
“Yes, it is,” Christensen’s uncle answered.
Christensen’s uncle on his mom’s side, Robert Lahmann, also described the mental-health issues on that side of the family.
He said Christensen’s grandpa and great-grandpa both intentionally killed themselves.
Besides trying to show that Christensen had a rough childhood with an alcoholic mother, the defense is trying to get the jury to infer that he must suffer from some mental-health disorder.
But they can’t directly make that argument, as they dropped their mental-health defense to avoid having the prosecution’s mental-health expert question Christensen.
But that means their mental-health experts can’t testify, either. After a couple of them examined Christensen, the defense said they had planned to argue he suffered from a severe mental-health disorder on the spectrum of schizophrenia.
Instead, they’re showing the jury the history of mental health in Christensen’s family and the apparent symptoms he suffered.
They also plan to bring in a UI psychiatrist who saw Christensen in 2016, who will be able to testify about what she saw in Christensen but not about what his diagnosis may have been when he killed Ms. Zhang.
The defense approached this line of questioning Wednesday, when attorney Julie Brain asked Mitchell, now a high school counselor, if any of the services he provides to his students could’ve been helpful to Christensen.
The prosecution objected to this question, and Brain withdrew it.
In their cross-examinations, the prosecution highlighted how far removed Christensen’s friends and family were from him, not seeing him in person for several years.
They seemed to be questioning how their memories of him as a child were relevant to how Christensen committed his crime.
In response to the defense’s questions about if the witnesses could ever imagine Christensen committing his crime, the prosecution would ask if they could imagine any children they knew growing up to commit murder.
The defense presentation will resume today and is expected to last until at least Monday.
Prosecution conflict may delay start of Ford County man's terrorism trial
URBANA — With the sentencing phase of Brendt Christensen’s murder trial in Peoria expected to run into next week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is concerned that the lead prosecutor assigned to that case may not be available as lead counsel in domestic terrorism suspect Michael B. Hari’s trial, scheduled for Monday in Urbana.
Due to U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller’s potential conflict, federal prosecutors in the Central District of Illinois recently contacted Hari’s public defenders and asked to push back his trial to Sept. 17 — prior to the scheduled Sept. 30 start of his federal trial in Minnesota.
Hari’s attorneys agreed to a continuance, but not one that lengthy.
Despite that, the prosecution asked in a recent court filing for a federal judge to set a “firm date” of Sept. 17 for Hari’s Urbana trial, or instead schedule a hearing “as soon as possible” to consider postponing it to that date.
Hari, a 48-year-old former Ford County sheriff’s deputy, was one of four Clarence men charged in federal court in both Illinois and Minnesota in connection with alleged acts of terrorism, including the August 2017 firebombing of the Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minn., and the attempted November 2017 firebombing of the Women’s Health Practice in Champaign in November 2017.
— Will Brumleve