PEORIA — After each side made its closing arguments Wednesday in the sentencing hearing of convicted killer Brendt Christensen, U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid said the jury’s deliberations could take a while.
“I expect it will take some time,” he said after dismissing the jury at 1:31 p.m.
When the same jurors found Christensen guilty of kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang, it took them less than two hours.
NEW: The jury will head home for the night at 5 p.m. and resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday.
By the end of Wednesday, they had already exceeded that when they left for the day at 5 p.m.
They were to return at 9 a.m. today to continue deliberating on whether Christensen should be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.
When closing arguments began Wednesday, the courtroom was full, with dozens of reporters, members of the University of Illinois Police Department and FBI agents who had worked on the case in attendance.
Christensen’s parents were there, too, and Christensen frequently tried to catch their eye, smiling when he did.
Ms. Zhang’s family also watched, including her father, brother and boyfriend.
Her mother, whom her lawyers said often is brought to tears at the sight of Christensen and has been watching the proceedings from an overflow room, joined her family in the morning before the jury entered.
But after a meeting in Shadid’s chambers with attorneys for both sides and Steve Beckett, one of the attorneys for Ms. Zhang’s family, Ms. Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, didn’t return to the courtroom.
Zhidong Wang, another attorney for Ms. Zhang’s family, said she didn’t watch from the main courtroom to avoid any issues that could lead the defense to raise objections.
After the jury was given its instructions, Justice Department Attorney James Nelson began his 58-minute closing argument.
“The defendant didn’t kill Yingying Zhang because he was drunk. The defendant didn’t kill Yingying Zhang because he was depressed,” he began. “The defendant killed Yingying Zhang for sport, because he thought he could get away with it.”
Nelson said there is “only one just sentence for this crime, and that is a sentence of death.”
Ms. Zhang was last seen June 9, 2017, on surveillance footage getting into Christensen’s Saturn Astra while she waited near a bus stop on campus.
She was running late to look at a new apartment at One North, and after talking briefly with Christensen, she got in his car.
For her family and friends, Nelson said, “It’s been 767 days without a smile. It’s been 767 days without a hug. It’s been 767 days wondering if their fallen leaf will return to its roots,” referencing a Chinese saying.
Nelson went through the prosecution’s aggravating factors, arguing first that Christensen planned and premeditated his attack.
Nelson argued that Christensen’s fascination with serial killers showed this, as well as a conversation on the fetish social network FetLife, where he planned a consensual kidnapping involving a gag and a large duffel bag.
Christensen bought a six-foot duffel bag in March 2017, returned it, then bought it again days before he killed Ms. Zhang. Like her body, the duffel bag has never been located.
Nelson held up a bag identical to the one Christensen bought and told the jury, “You can decide if this bag is large enough to transport and dispose of a body.”
He argued that Ms. Zhang was especially vulnerable, given her broken English, which Christensen told the FBI she had.
And Nelson argued the murder of Ms. Zhang was especially heinous, cruel and depraved, citing the wire recording where Christensen told his girlfriend how he said he killed Ms. Zhang.
“We know the manner of killing because the defendant told us,” Nelson said.
“Choking someone for 10 minutes is torture,” he said. Stabbing someone in the neck is “the definition of torture. This is the definition of serious physical abuse.”
Decapitating her is “the definition of heinous,” Nelson said. “This is the definition of depraved.”
He argued that the forensic evidence supports Christensen’s claims, with Ms. Zhang’s DNA found on his bed and in a bloodstain on a tack strip and under the carpet.
“How much blood must there have been to soak into the tack strip through the carpet?” Nelson asked.
And he said Christensen obstructed the investigation by lying to FBI agents, which the jury has also found Christensen guilty of on two counts, as well as extensively cleaning his apartment and car.
Noting he bought two bottles of Drano Max in the days after he killed Ms. Zhang, Nelson said, “that’s an awful lot of Drano.”
He showed the jury pictures taken with an alternative light source indicating extensive cleaning in Christensen’s bedroom and living room floor.
“This is the path he’d have to take to drag a body out of his apartment,” Nelson said.
And he argued Christensen has shown a lack of remorse, including early on when he attended a vigil for Ms. Zhang three weeks after she went missing.
His ex-girlfriend testified that he was drinking during the vigil, refused to stand during a standing ovation and pointed out ideal victims.
“This picture is all you need to see,” Nelson said, referring to a picture of Christensen at the vigil.
And finally, he argued that the impact on Ms. Zhang’s family has been immense.
Her family and friends described her as always smiling, generous and thoughtful, always sending postcards when she traveled, for example.
She moved to Urbana in April 2017 to study photosynthesis at the UI as a visiting scholar, with the goal of pursuing her doctorate.
She also planned to marry her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, in October 2017.
Because of all this, “that’s why she fought so hard,” Nelson argued. “She had so much to live for. She didn’t want that man to be the last thing she saw on earth.”
He also argued against some of what he expected the defense to argue.
Nelson argued that Christensen’s good behavior as a child was hardly remarkable and that the issues he faced were “issues people deal with everyday.”
“All murderers start out as innocent children,” he said. “The defendant is not here for what he did as a 12-year-old.”
And he acknowledged the pain sentencing Christensen to death would cause his family but said that pain would be caused by Christensen, not the jury.
Their “pain’s legitimate,” he said. “This isn’t their fault. I’m certain they will grieve. But the source of that pain sits on that chair,” referring to Christensen.
After he wrapped up, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock began her 64-minute closing argument.
“We’re finally here,” she began, recognizing the length of this case.
The jurors sat through eight days of evidence in the guilt phase that began more than a month ago, and then listened to another seven days of witnesses during the sentencing phase.
Like in her opening statement during the guilt phase, Pollock admitted her client’s guilt and said multiple times that she wouldn’t try to make excuses for his actions.
“I’m not going to deny the fact that Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang,” she said. “I’m not going to try to make excuses or explain why” he committed his crime.
“Brendt did that, on his own. It’s inexcusable,” she said.
And she acknowledged how difficult it was to hear Ms. Zhang’s family describe what their daughter’s death means to them.
“If you have a soul, it pained you as much as it pained me,” she said. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking at Ms. Zhang’s family.
But she said the defense’s mitigating factors don’t need to explain why Christensen killed Ms. Zhang.
Instead, she said they provide a fuller picture of who Christensen is and why he doesn’t deserve the death penalty.
Pollock described him as a bright and polite young man who failed to control his inner demons in 2016 and 2017.
She said he had no criminal record, followed the rules and was a loving, caring and gentle child.
She also said his family had a history of alcohol- and drug-abuse and mental-health issues, and that Christensen suffered from migraines, depression, anxiety and alcohol and drug abuse.
And she reminded the jury that he went to the UI Counseling Center in March 2017, but argued they “had some communication issues” and could’ve done more to help him.
“He knew something was wrong with him,” Pollock said.
Wrapping up, she reminded the jury of the stakes.
“He’s leaving in a coffin, no matter what you do,” she said. “This is the last time he’s going to wear clothes not given to him by a prison.”
Christensen has been wearing button-down shirts and dress pants during trial; on Wednesday, he was wearing a white shirt and dark gray pants.
She argued that “Brendt is not the worst of the worst,” as he tried to seek help.
“Now his life is in your hands,” she said.
Finally, she walked over to Christensen and put her hands on his shoulders.
“We have stood with Brendt for almost two years,” she said, holding back tears. “He is not just the worst thing he ever did.”
In jury’s hands
Before the closing arguments were made Wednesday, Shadid read to the jury the lengthy instructions they’ll have to follow to reach a sentence.
He went over the eight aggravating factors the government tried to prove as reasons Christensen deserves the death penalty, and the 49 mitigating factors the defense tried to prove to show why Christensen shouldn’t get it.
The jury will fill out a special verdict form, marking which of the aggravating factors were proven beyond a reasonable doubt and how many jurors found which of the mitigating factors were proven by a preponderance of the evidence.
They’ll then weigh those factors and decide whether Christensen should be sentenced to life in prison or death.
“You may take all the time you feel is necessary,” Shadid said in the instructions.