URBANA — Brendt Christensen declined to take the stand as the defense wrapped up its case Monday, the same day his mother testified about how she would feel if her son received the death penalty for kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang.
“It would be horrible,” Ellen Williams said, struggling to speak as her son teared up. “It would be devastating.”
She called Christensen’s crime “horrible. It’s sad. I feel bad,” but said she loves her children unconditionally.
And she said she thinks about Ms. Zhang’s family “at least five times a day and how horrible this must be for them.”
The jury found Christensen guilty last month of kidnapping the visiting University of Illinois scholar in June 2017 while she waited for a bus on campus, then taking her back to his apartment and killing her.
NEW: Brendt Christensen’s mother, Ellen Williams, testified this afternoon, saying “it would be horrible” if her son got the death penalty. “It would be devastating,” she said.
After a rebuttal from the prosecution today and closing arguments Wednesday, the same jury will weigh whether Christensen should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release or the death penalty.
Last week, Ms. Zhang’s parents, brother and boyfriend testified about the impact her death has had, leaving her mother and father sleep deprived and struggling to live day-to-day. They said it’s especially hard to move on without giving her a proper burial, as Ms. Zhang’s body has never been found.
“How am I supposed to carry on living? I really don’t know how to carry on,” her mother, Lifeng Ye, said last week through a translator.
On Monday, the jury heard emotional testimony from Christensen’s mother and his sister, as well as from prison guards about his behavior during about 20 months at the Livingston County Jail.
Williams described Christensen as polite, kind and smart — “smarter than me” — and showed a compilation of home videos of Christensen at his first birthday party, opening Christmas gifts and playing the piano.
But she also testified about her family’s issues with alcohol and depression, citing her own issues and that of her father and grandfather.
She said she’s been sober for almost two years, but said she used to be an alcoholic and started feeling depressed around 1995.
And Williams described Christensen’s night terrors.
“Brendt would wake up yelling in bed,” she said. “His eyes were wild. I knew he couldn’t see me. (He was) just totally freaked out.”
She said these began when he was two or three years old, and “I don’t know if they ever went away.”
She also said he would walk in his sleep, though “nothing dramatic happened,” and that he suffered from frequent, hourslong migraines.
His doctors weren’t able to explain why he got the migraines, she said.
'He was delirious'
She also described an incident when he was 15 years old and home sick with a fever.
Williams said she had to go to her friend’s house, and when she returned half an hour later, she couldn’t get to her house because the street was blocked with an ambulance and police cars.
“I got out of my pickup and ran in,” she said.
She found Christensen lying on the floor on a medical board.
“They wouldn’t let me near him,” she said.
His heart rate was 200 beats per minute, she said, and the doctors initially suspected drugs were involved, but didn’t find any in his system.
Williams said she learned he jumped off the second-floor deck, then ran down the driveway into a car.
“I always thought he was delirious” from his fever, she said. “But I found out later he may have been trying to hurt himself.”
Regardless of what caused this, she said his doctors let him out the next day.
She also described another incident when Christensen was 19 and working for a roofing company.
He was on the roof when a board he was standing on gave way, and he fell onto his hands, Williams said, shattering bones in both his arms.
He was in surgery for hours, she said.
After this incident, she said Christensen had trouble sleeping, only feeling safe enough to fall asleep if he slept on his stomach with their cat on his back.
He searched his symptoms on Google and determined he may have schizophrenia, she said, but she took him to the doctor, who said Christensen had PTSD and prescribed him medications.
The prosecution objected to Williams mentioning Christensen’s self-diagnosis, as his lawyers had previously dropped their defense that Christensen suffered from a severe mental illness on the spectrum of schizophrenia.
They plan to ask U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid for an instruction to the jury about this issue.
Refocusing on wife
Williams also described her son’s early adult years, when he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2013 two years after getting married.
“They are just so suited to each other,” she said of his now ex-wife, Michelle Zortman.
Last week, the jury heard a tape of Zortman saying she hoped Christensen’s ex-girlfriend passed out while testifying during the guilt phase of the trial and making fun of her weight.
In the spring of 2017, Christensen began dating his ex-girlfriend after Zortman suggested opening their marriage.
After Christensen became a suspect, his ex-girlfriend wore a wire for the FBI, recording him describing in graphic detail how he said he killed Ms. Zhang.
Zortman said she regretted making fun of Christensen’s ex-girlfriend and said she was emotional when she said it.
The defense appears to be trying to rehabilitate her image to the jury, asking Christensen’s mother and sister to describe her.
“We love Michelle,” Williams said.
Christensen’s sister, Andrea Christensen, called Zortman “awesome” and described her as calm and sweet.
His sister also spoke about their childhood, saying she looked up to Christensen as a role model and said he never raised his voice.
“Brendt was a very gentle person,” she said, never telling her to leave when his friends were over.
Christensen’s sister said that after she left Wisconsin, she hardly stayed in touch with her family, including Christensen, “but I should have.”
She said she felt “shock, grief, empathy” when she heard that Christensen kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang.
“I felt very sad that he was suffering enough” to do that, she said.
And she said she’d continue to support him.
“Nothing changes my love for him,” she said.
Life locked up
In the morning, guards and administrators at the Livingston County Jail testified about Christensen’s behavior there, describing a near perfect record with no violations.
Christensen was housed there from late September 2017, about three months after he was arrested, to the end of May 2019, when he was transferred to the Peoria County Jail during his trial.
Christensen lived with seven others in his “pod,” and jail employees said the only issue that came up was in April 2018, when one of his roommates put a wire contraption in an outlet to heat water. As that was happening, Christensen blocked the door window with a garbage can, correctional officer Patricia Perez said.
But he wasn’t found culpable and never received a violation or reprimand for this, the guards said.
Jail superintendent Stewart Inman said he interacted with Christensen twice.
One time, Christensen said the Wi-Fi on his tablet was weak, so they fixed that, Inman said. The other time, Christensen had a stack of books when he was only supposed to have three at a time, so the extra books were stored away, Inman said.
The jail employees described Christensen as an unremarkable inmate who followed the rules. He spent most of his time reading, watching TV, writing letters and working out, they said.
But “he didn’t sleep very much,” Sgt. Donald Niles said, staying up to 5 a.m. or later reading and writing.
Another employee, Nicholas Melvin, said he talked with Christensen about the Goosebumps books he was reading, a children’s book series.
On cross-examination, Justice Department Attorney James Nelson asked Melvin if he was aware if Christensen was reading books about demonology and the occult.
Melvin said he wasn’t.
Later, the defense strongly objected to this being asked, arguing it would unfairly prejudice the jury.
“The question was uncalled for,” Assistant Federal Defender George Taseff said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said they had a good-faith basis for asking it, as the answer about Goosebumps invited the question, and an email from Christensen to his wife said the book she sent him about the occult was perfect.
Shadid said he’d consider an instruction to the jury about the issue.