URBANA — On Friday, for the third time since he was arrested, Brendt Christensen’s now-ex-wife testified in court.
The first two times, Michelle Zortman wore what appeared to be a normal red sweater and black pants.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller took note and suggested Friday that Christensen had asked her to wear that outfit.
“It’s possible,” Zortman said.
In response, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock asked Zortman if she “picked out her own clothes like a big girl,” to which Zortman said, “Yes.”
Zortman wore a different outfit Friday, when she testified about how she met Christensen and married him in 2011.
NEW: Court resumed without Brendt Christensen, who was experiencing severe migraines today and was seen rubbing his head this morning.
Under a subpoena, she flew in from out of state to testify for the defense, which is trying to convince the jury that Christensen should receive life in prison instead of the death penalty for kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang in June 2017.
The same jury found him guilty last month after hearing a wire recording of him describing how he said he kidnapped Ms. Zhang, took her back to his apartment and brutally raped and killed her.
Investigators also found Ms. Zhang’s DNA in his bedroom in a bloodstain that had soaked to the bottom of the carpet under Christensen’s bed and on a bat he claimed he hit her in the head with.
The defense is now trying to humanize Christensen for the jury while also implying that he suffered from mental-health issues that weren’t properly addressed.
Zortman testified during the earlier guilt phase about the marital problems they faced as a result of his drinking problems.
On Friday, she focused on how they met and their relationship early on.
She is one year older than Christensen, and they met while working together at Kmart. After he finished working there in 2008, she recognized him at the store and started a conversation with him.
They went on their first date within days, Zortman said, though they broke up that fall for a month before getting back together.
In 2009, he moved to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin, and she joined him.
After he proposed to her at the Great Wolf Lodge in the Wisconsin Dells, they got married in 2011 at the Best Western in Madison, as she said she isn’t a big fan of fancy weddings.
They spent their honeymoon at the Kalahari Resort in the Wisconsin Dells.
Early in their marriage, Zortman said she and Christensen had no close friends and relied on each other for support.
In 2013, he was accepted to both UW-Madison and the University of Illinois for graduate school, and after visiting Champaign-Urbana, decided to attend the UI, Zortman said.
“I told him I’d support him with whatever decision he made,” she said.
They came down to look at a few apartments, and both agreed that the one they saw in the 2500 block of West Springfield Avenue in Champaign was the best.
Pollock also asked her about a jail call played earlier in the week by the prosecution where Zortman is heard saying that she hoped Christensen’s ex-girlfriend would pass out while testifying and be carried out in a stretcher.
On the June 19, 2019, call, Christensen kept saying he couldn’t comment, but would make a joke if he could.
She caught on and said it would have to be a “really big stretcher, a plus-size stretcher.”
On Friday, Zortman said she regretted the comments and would take them back if she could.
“I was emotional and let that get the best of me,” she said.
During the guilt phase of the trial, Zortman testified that by 2016, she and Christensen were having some marital problems, and in December 2016, he drunkenly told her about his interest in serial killers.
She gave him an ultimatum to stop drinking, and by the spring of 2017, Zortman said his drinking was getting worse and suggested opening their marriage.
In March, she said she told Christensen she was contemplating a divorce.
Visits with counselors
According to Christensen, two days after this, he visited the UI Counseling Center, where he told an intern that he was suffering from alcohol abuse, sleep deprivation, suicidal thoughts and homicidal thoughts, among other issues.
“Alcohol and drug addiction are ruining my life,” he wrote March 21, 2017, on the intake form.
He told an intern that he had made homicidal plans that were “pretty far along,” including purchasing some items.
But he said he returned the items after realizing it wouldn’t be worth it.
On Friday, UI counselors testified about what happened next.
Christensen wasn’t willing to be hospitalized voluntarily, clinical counselor Felicia Li said, and a follow-up visit was scheduled for March 30.
He was supposed to call the next day but said he forgot, Li said, so she called him.
“I called because I was concerned about his safety,” she said, and he confirmed he would be willing to come back for his next appointment.
He did return, meeting with clinical counselor Jennifer Maupin about his abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and then with clinical counselor Tom Miebach about his suicidal and homicidal thoughts.
Christensen talked about murder in an analytical fashion as a fantasy of his, Miebach said, but when asked if he might act on his fantasies, Christensen said he wouldn’t.
He told Miebach that he had purchased items for the transport and disposal of a body, but that he had disposed of the items.
And Miebach said he specifically asked if Christensen had a particular target in mind, and Christensen said he didn’t.
Christensen was scheduled for another appointment with Miebach for early April and also referred to Rosecrance, a substance-abuse facility in Champaign that has psychiatrists available.
Christensen didn’t want residential treatment or group therapy, Maupin said, specifically rejecting Alcoholics Anonymous because of its references to higher powers.
He apparently never went to Rosecrance but may have showed up for his next appointment at the counseling center.
On April 6, he filled out an intake form, receiving a 0 for suicidal and homicidal ideation and other issues he had previously had received high risk factors for.
All his scores either stayed the same or went down significantly, Miebach said.
But Christensen never met with Miebach, who wasn’t sure why.
“I was under the impression that he never showed up,” Miebach said, noting that he checked the lobby. “I later found out he must’ve shown up,” as he filled out the intake form.
But he said it’s “highly unusual” to fill out the form and leave, and Christensen was never marked as present by reception.
“I don’t know what happened,” Miebach said.
Treatment on trial
On Friday afternoon, Susan Zoline testified for the defense as an expert in psychology ethics about what she thought the UI counselors could have done differently.
“I don’t believe he received the help that he deserved and should’ve received,” said Zoline, the co-chairwoman of the Illinois Psychological Association’s ethics committee.
Zoline couldn’t say the crime could have been prevented if he had better care, but said there’s “a possibility that that could have been helpful and may have prevented the tragedy that occurred.”
In her review of the counseling center’s records, Zoline said she would have considered his case “serious” after his initial visit, but didn’t think he presented an imminent threat and wouldn’t have hospitalized him involuntarily.
But she said counselors could have asked Christensen for permission to talk with the psychiatrist he saw from January 2016 to February 2017, who prescribed for him medications for depression and sleep issues that he was abusing.
She also thought the counselors could have asked Christensen for permission to talk with the campus threat response team. While prosecutors said that could have made his situation worse and Miebach said he didn’t want to ruin the rapport he was trying to build, Zoline said that if presented to him correctly, it could help realize the seriousness of his problem.
Zoline also said the counselors could have been more clear in their communications with Christensen.
For example, instead of asking him what treatment options he would prefer, she said they should have told him what they recommended and then asked him.
She also thought they should have made more clear that his homicidal thoughts were serious problems. She cited the email that referred him to Rosecrance, which specifically cited his alcohol abuse but not his homicidal thoughts. That email also referred to Rosecrance as a one-stop shop with a variety of services, the defense noted.
Zoline was only allowed to testify about the counselors’ ethical obligations and whether they followed the UI’s policies, not about their legal requirements.
The suit alleges that the social workers who interviewed the accused kidnapper and killer about three months before his arrest 'knew that (Christensen) satisfied the criteria of a high-level threat of harm to others.'
Their legal requirements are a particularly sensitive topic, as Maupin and Miebach are currently being sued by Ms. Zhang’s family for wrongful death and negligence.
The suit was filed in early June, and Maupin and Miebach have yet to respond to the allegations in that lawsuit.
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler has defended the counseling center in general terms.
“State and federal health and privacy prevent us from commenting on the treatment given to any individual student,” she said in April. “However, we are confident in the treatment and services the staff of our counseling center provide to the students who come to them. Our staff are trained to provide care and services that are consistent with the best practices in mental health care nationally.”
Christensen’s mental health as a whole has been a sensitive topic in this case.
In an earlier bid to avoid the death penalty, his lawyers had been planning to argue that he suffers from a severe mental-health illness on the spectrum of schizophrenia.
That would have given the prosecution the right to have their mental-health expert examine Christensen, but days before he was scheduled to do so, Christensen’s lawyers said they would no longer be making a mental-health defense.
Because of that decision this spring, U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid barred Christensen’s psychiatrist from testifying Thursday.
Despite dropping the mental-health defense, Shadid has allowed the defense’s witnesses to talk about Christensen’s and his family’s mental-health issues, as long as they spoke about it historically and not as experts.
His family has described numerous suicidal, depressed and alcoholic relatives, as well as Christensen’s night terrors as a child.
Christensen’s lawyers hope to wrap up their case Monday, and closing arguments are tentatively scheduled for Tuesday or Wednesday.