URBANA — After seven days of testimony from more than 35 witnesses, a jury of seven men and five women will begin deliberating today over whether convicted killer Brendt Christensen lives or dies.
After the same jury found him guilty last month of kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, it reconvened last week for a lengthy sentencing hearing where jurors heard from Ms. Zhang’s family and friends, Christensen’s family and friends, jail guards, his counselors and his UI physics colleagues.
After U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid reads instructions to the jury at 9 a.m. today, the prosecution and defense will make their closing arguments, and then it’s “in your hands,” he said.
Unlike during the initial guilt phase, when a guilty verdict was expected after his lawyers admitted he killed Ms. Zhang in June 2017, it’s an open question what Christensen’s sentence will be.
Since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, juries have sentenced defendants to death in just 36 percent of the cases that went to trial, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
For Christensen to be sentenced to death, the jury would have to decide unanimously to do so.
If one juror disagrees, he will receive life in prison without the possibility of release.
“This concludes all the evidence from the sentencing phase,” U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid said after prosecution made a brief rebuttal.
Christensen’s lawyers formally rested their case Tuesday, and the prosecution called FBI agent Andrew Huckstadt for a brief rebuttal case to try to clarify a few issues that came up during the penalty phase.
The prosecution got in another chance to play for the jury a jail call between Christensen and his ex-wife, Michelle Zortman, from June 9, the day of his ex-girlfriend’s testimony during the guilt phase of the trial.
On the call, Zortman said she hoped his ex-girlfriend would pass out and have to be carried out on a stretcher. She then made a joke about his ex-girlfriend’s weight.
Christensen’s ex-girlfriend was a key witness for the prosecution, having recorded him describing in gruesome detail how he said he killed Ms. Zhang.
Over the defense’s objection, the prosecution again played this tape for the jury.
They wanted to make it clear that Christensen laughed at his ex-wife’s joke, as they said her testimony wasn’t clear about this.
When she testified on Friday, she said, “Many people use laughter to hide their pain.”
She also said she regretted the comment and wished she could take it back.
“I was emotional and let that get the best of me,” she said.
The prosecution also played a tape of Christensen saying he got 12 hours of sleep in jail, to counter defense testimony from guards about how late he stayed up.
Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said there were also tapes of him describing how little sleep he got in jail.
And the prosecution played a jail call from a few days after Christensen was arrested in 2017 of his father saying that “when you’re exonerated,” he would “love to contact her dad” and everyone else who assumed Christensen’s guilt and point out that they “should be ashamed.”
After the prosecution ended their rebuttal, Shadid said, “This concludes all the evidence from the sentencing phase.”
'Yingying's ... my everything'
Over the course of seven days, the jury first heard emotional testimony from Ms. Zhang’s parents describing what her loss means to them.
“I so much wanted to see her in a wedding dress,” said her mother, Lifeng Ye, who cried throughout a video interview with prosecutors.
She was emotionally unable to testify in person, prosecutors said.
Ms. Zhang was planning to get married to Xiaolin Hou in October 2017.
“My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress. I really wanted to be a grandma,” Ye said.
Her parents said they placed great hope in their daughter, who was ranked No. 2 in her college only behind her boyfriend.
Her parents didn’t go to college. Her father is a driver and her mother is a homemaker, unable to read or write Chinese.
Her father, Ronggao Zhang, said that since his daughter was killed in June 2017, he has had trouble sleeping and concentrating.
“I do not know how to live the remainder of my life,” he said. “Yingying’s my pride and also my everything.”
And her boyfriend said he has tried to help them move on, “but how, without finding her?” Their “only desire is to find her and bring her back home.”
“I will never give up hope to find her,” he said.
Body never found
Investigators have never been able to find Ms. Zhang’s body, despite intense search efforts.
As prosecutors were considering whether to seek the death penalty in late 2017, they said that after consulting with Ms. Zhang’s family, they approached Christensen with a plea offer for a life sentence in exchange for finding Ms. Zhang’s body.
In response, the defense said they could only agree to Christensen providing information about Ms. Zhang’s location.
In pretrial documents, Christensen’s lawyers said finding Ms. Zhang’s remains was something “over which he had no control. ... He could not guarantee that the victim’s remains would be found.”
Christensen’s offer was rejected by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who instead authorized seeking the death penalty in January 2018.
Christensen’s lawyers wanted to mention that he was willing to plead and cooperate with investigators, but were unable to reach an agreement with prosecutors about what the jury could be told.
Prosecutors will likely use the lack of Ms. Zhang’s body for two of their aggravating factors: lack of remorse and obstruction of the investigation.
They’re also trying to prove that Christensen killed Ms. Zhang in an especially heinous way involving torture.
In the recording made by his ex-girlfriend, Christensen describes how he raped, choked and decapitated Ms. Zhang.
Her DNA was found in his apartment, including on a bat he said he hit her in the head with and in a bloodstain on the bottom of the carpet beneath his bed.
The defense has tried to cast doubt on the recording, noting that he also claimed he had 12 other victims, a claim the FBI hasn’t been able to corroborate.
Efforts to humanize
After the prosecution made their case, the defense called on Christensen’s family and friends, who testified about him being a polite, quiet and smart young child.
They described being shocked that the man they knew ended up being a murderer.
And like the prosecution’s case, the defense’s case often got emotional.
“I’m sorry my son was the cause of their pain,” said Christensen’s father, Michael, struggling through tears as his son also cried.
He said he would continue to support his son in prison but couldn’t handle him dying by lethal injection.
“A death sentence I could handle, but not the actual death,” he said.
His family described various problems in Christensen’s life, from his night terrors to a bizarre incident when he was 15 years old.
While home sick with a fever, his parents said he jumped off his second-floor porch and ran down the driveway and into a van.
And when he was 19 years old, he fell off a roof on a construction site and broke several bones in both arms. Afterward, he experienced symptoms of PTSD, said his mother, Ellen Williams.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 2013, he moved to Champaign to pursue his physics doctorate at the University of Illinois.
But his physics colleagues said that he eventually started to struggle, failing to show up for meetings and not progressing in his research.
In 2016, he agreed to graduate with just a master’s.
The defense is expected to argue that Christensen suffered from various issues, such as depression, sleep deprivation and anxiety, that he sought help for but ultimately couldn’t control.
However, in the spring, they abandoned their mental-health defense days before Christensen was scheduled to be examined by the prosecution’s mental-health expert, so they’ve had to be careful about not connecting Christensen’s mental-health issues with his crime.
While his family was able to describe the history of alcoholism and depression in his family, the defense was barred from calling a University of Illinois psychiatrist he saw from January 2016 to February 2017.
That psychiatrist diagnosed him with persistent depressive disorder, prescribed him some medications and later adjusted the diagnosis to unspecified depressive disorder.
In January 2017, she referred him to the University of Illinois Counseling Center to be get help with his binge drinking.
He visited the counseling center that March, when he described to an intern his alcohol and marital problems, his academic issues, suicidal thoughts, interest in serial killers and homicidal plans.
He described his plans as “pretty far along,” as he had bought and returned some items, but said he abandoned his plans after realizing it wouldn’t be worth it.
The defense had some of the counselors Christensen met with testify, and a psychology ethics expert testified about what she thought they could have done better.
Life behind bars
The defense also brought in some of the jail guards Christensen has dealt with at the Livingston County Jail from September 2017 through the end of May, when he was transferred to the Peoria County Jail during the trial.
They described his good behavior there, never receiving a violation.
He was involved in just one incident, they said, when he blocked his pod door as one of his roommates was using a metal contraption in an outlet to heat water.
But he wasn’t found culpable, the guards said, and was never reprimanded.
While in jail, they said he has spent his time working out, watching TV, writing letters and reading.
One guard said he read books from the children’s series “Goosebumps,” which prompted the prosecutors to bring up an email Christensen wrote telling his wife that the occult book she got him was perfect.
Shadid said that book would not be allowed to be mentioned by prosecutors during closing arguments, as the jury has to certify that it reached its decision without discrimination, including on the basis of religion.