PEORIA — When Yingying Zhang was getting ready to board a train in her hometown to set off on her journey to Champaign-Urbana in April 2017, her mother said she asked for one more hug and a picture of them together.
Her younger brother, Xinyang Zhang, took the picture, which was shown Tuesday, the second day of the sentencing hearing of Brendt Christensen.
That was the last time Ms. Zhang’s family saw her.
Christensen was convicted two weeks ago of kidnapping and killing the young woman in June 2017.
Prosecutors are now trying to convince the jury to sentence Christensen to death, rather than life in prison without the possibility of release.
They focused Tuesday on the impact that Ms. Zhang’s death has had on her family, as the jury heard from her mother, father and brother via an interpreter, while Ms. Zhang’s fiance, Xiaolin Hou, testified in English.
Yingying Zhang's father: 'I do not know how to live the remainder of my life. Yingying ... she's my pride and also my everything.'
Ms. Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, cried as he was asked about the picture of them at the train station, taking tissues and a glass of water U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid handed him.
Through the interpreter, Shadid asked if Zhang needed a break, but he said he could continue.
“My life without her will not be complete,” he said Tuesday.
During a break in the father’s testimony, Christensen could be seen crying as well, grabbing a tissue in front of him and bringing it to his eyes.
Ms. Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, was emotionally unable to testify in person, so prosecutors recorded an interview with her this past weekend.
She cried through much of it, especially as she described her hopes for Ms. Zhang, who she gave birth to at the age of 21.
“I so much wanted to see her in a wedding dress,” she said after saying she looked forward to Ms. Zhang’s marriage to Hou in October 2017. “My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress. I really wanted to be a grandma.”
Growing up, she said Ms. Zhang was a “very, very nice child,” thinking of others’ needs from a young age and always mature for her age.
Ye said her daughter helped with chores without needing to be asked.
“When she comes back from school, she would just do it,” she said. “If not, she’d go straight upstairs to do her homework. She has always been very independent.”
Ye said Ms. Zhang was eligible for financial aid in high school as their family went through some financial difficulties, and her daughter would save that money and give it to classmates she thought were more in need.
“She was never a selfish child,” her mom said.
When Ms. Zhang wanted to go to the United States, Ye said she was initially hesitant, wanting her daughter to get a job first.
“But since she was determined to do so, I decided to give her my full support,” she said.
Ye described her daughter as a “very, very good daughter” who “never wants to worry me with anything.”
Unprompted, she asked, “How am I supposed to carry on living? I really don’t know how to carry on.”
During this video, a juror got up and walked out of the courtroom crying and headed toward a bathroom, and Shadid called a recess.
Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock questioned how that juror could be fair and impartial, noting that she had said during the selection process that her daughter was in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy.
And she said she had never seen a juror walk out of a courtroom like that before.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said they had never been in a capital sentencing hearing before “where the defendant murdered the daughter of the person testifying.”
Shadid questioned the juror for a few minutes in his chambers. She said she was OK and could be fair and impartial, and she returned to the jury.
She’s one of 12 jurors tasked with weighing the prosecution’s reasons for wanting Christensen to be put to death against the defense’s reasons for why he should get life in prison.
‘They feel helpless’
The prosecution’s witnesses Tuesday testified that the impact on Ms. Zhang’s family has been enormous.
Her parents said they have hardly been able to sleep over the past two years.
Her father said he has trouble concentrating and recently fell down a staircase.
“I do not know how to live the remainder of my life,” he said. “Yingying’s my pride and also my everything.”
Her father is a driver for a company, and her mother is a homemaker, unable to read or write Chinese.
Neither of her parents went to college, and they said they placed great hope in their daughter, who was ranked number two in her college only behind her boyfriend.
Ms. Zhang hoped to become a professor and support her family, her high school teacher, Zujuan Qi, said in a video played Tuesday.
“She wanted to become a teacher and help her family as much as possible,” Qi said.
“They feel helpless,” Ms. Zhang’s boyfriend, Hou, said Tuesday. “They blame themselves.”
He tries to help them move on, “but how, without finding her?” he said. Their “only desire is to find her and bring her back home.”
Her younger brother, a cook’s apprentice who made it through eighth grade, spoke about how his sister “always took good care of me.”
She helped find jobs for him after he finished school, and he said he missed her when she left for college.
When she came home, “we would go out and have fun together.”
“In the evening, we’d sneak out and have something to eat,” he said.
He said his sister had a very good relationship with their mother, as it seemed they had “endless things to talk about.”
He called her “a sister, a friend and a teacher,” he said. “Since I lost her, I’ve felt lost because I no longer have my teacher to guide me.”
Attorneys for the government, which is seeking the death penalty, and for the defense, which is advocating for a life sentence for the convicted kidnapper and killer, both made their opening statements Monday to the same jury that rendered the verdict.
After the brother finished testifying, Assistant Federal Defender George Taseff stood up to cross-examine him, and said, “We are terribly sorry for your loss and the pain you and your family are experiencing.”
Then Taseff said he had no questions and sat down.
Miller began to stand up to object, and Shadid said this tactic would be addressed.
After Ms. Zhang’s father testified, Taseff simply stood up and said the defense had no questions.
Taseff apparently was trying to show some remorse on behalf of Christensen, who prosecutors are arguing has shown a lack of it.
Prosecutors replayed Tuesday the gruesome tapes of Christensen describing how he killed Ms. Zhang, including when he laughed while saying he cut her head off.
They also played clips of him making phone calls from jail to a friend, his wife and his parents, where he continues to assert his innocence in the months after he was arrested.
Four days after he was arrested June 30, 2017, he told his wife, “All I can say is I’m innocent” and called the investigators “desperate.”
That August, he told his mom, “It’s all circumstantial” and that “I didn’t do it.”
Again in September, he told his wife that he’s innocent and his mom, “I don’t understand what they think I did.”
That November, he told his dad, “This seems like 99.9 percent political.”
That would have been a little before the prosecution and his lawyers began negotiating a plea deal that was never reached.
Prosecutors said, at the request of Ms. Zhang’s family, they initially offered to give Christensen life in prison if he would plead guilty and locate her body.
In response, the defense said he could only provide information about her location, according to documents unsealed in recent weeks.
Both sides seemed to agree that meant it was unlikely her body could be found, and the defense’s offer was rejected by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The plea negotiations have yet to come up during the sentencing phase, but are expected to during the defense’s case, scheduled to begin today with testimony from Christensen’s father.
He has been attending the trial and often tries to make eye contact with his son as he enters, usually bringing a smile to Christensen.
During the rest of the trial, Christensen has mostly showed little emotion, listening and looking ahead throughout the testimony.
The prosecutors played one more tape Tuesday — recorded June 9, 2019, during the guilt phase on the day Christensen’s ex-girlfriend would be testifying.
His wife said she hopes his ex-girlfriend “passes out up there” and is “carried away in a stretcher.”
Christensen repeatedly says he can’t comment on the phone call, but says that if he could, he would make a joke.
Eventually, his wife catches on and says they’d need a “really big stretcher, a plus-size stretcher.”
Pollock agreed that Christensen’s wife “sounded fairly nasty” in that clip and wanted to play a less offensive one, but Shadid said that would make more sense during their case.