PEORIA — A University of Illinois psychiatrist was scheduled to testify at 3 p.m. Thursday about her nine visits with Brendt Christensen the year before he kidnapped and killed Yingying Zhang.
But while she was on her way to the federal courthouse in Peoria, prosecutors argued that she shouldn’t be allowed to testify, as Christensen’s lawyers previously dropped their plan to seek a mental-health defense.
After more than an hour of back-and-forth, U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid eventually agreed and barred her from testifying, sending the jury home for the day without hearing from the psychiatrist.
“You withdrew that,” he said about the mental-health defense. “You made a strategic decision to do so. Today, it’s being enforced.”
Fellow physics colleagues testified that Brendt Christensen started out driven but started missing weekly TA meetings, stopped showing up to his office hours and did not use equipment he had signed up to use during testimony Thursday morning at the convicted killer’s sentencing hearing in Peoria.
Christensen met with the psychiatrist from January 2016 to February 2017, the last visit coming four months before he kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang, a visiting scholar from China.
He was convicted of the crime last month by the same jury that will soon decide whether he deserves life in prison without the possibility of release or the death penalty.
Christensen’s visits came as his grad school performance declined, and according to defense attorney Julie Brain, the psychiatrist was going to testify about his symptoms, such as feeling sad and substance abuse.
He was prescribed some medications, but she said, “he switched medications because the first ones did not fully alleviate the symptoms.”
The psychiatrist diagnosed him with persistent depressive disorder, Brain said, though she said the defense team doesn’t necessarily agree with that diagnosis.
Though “I personally do,” she said.
“That starts to raise more issues,” Shadid said.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Brain said.
The defense is planning to argue during its closing that in the months before he killed Ms. Zhang, Christensen dealt with depression and anxiety, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said, and that he sought help, but it didn’t work.
“It didn’t work” is the problem, Shadid said, because that connects Christensen’s mental health to his crime, a connection he previously said his lawyers couldn’t make after they dropped their mental-health defense.
In an earlier bid to avoid the death penalty, Christensen’s lawyers had been planning to argue he suffers from a severe mental-health illness on the spectrum of schizophrenia.
That would have given the prosecution an opportunity 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.
Despite that decision, 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.
And during the guilt phase, Christensen’s lawyers played a video of him going to the UI Counseling Center in March 2017 describing his sleeping and drinking problems, as well as his suicidal and homicidal thoughts and plans.
And his wife is scheduled to testify today and is expected to talk about the issues Christensen was dealing with in the months before he murdered Ms. Zhang.
But the jury didn’t hear from the psychiatrist.
After the jury was brought in, Shadid asked the defense if they had any more witnesses for the day. They said they didn’t, and the jurors were dismissed for the day.
Back in Wisconsin
Earlier, they heard from Christensen’s junior high track and field coach, David Belk, who was also his advanced algebra teacher.
He drove about five hours Thursday morning from Stevens Point, Wis., to testify for about 20 minutes.
“He was a good student; hard working, quiet,” Belk said. “I just remember a quiet, respectful boy. He worked hard.”
So “I was surprised to hear it on the news,” Belk said about Christensen’s arrest two years ago.
One of his physics professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Matthew Herndon, testified about Christensen receiving an A in his class and becoming one of his three undergraduate researchers.
“I expect him to excel in grad school,” Herndon wrote in his recommendation letter for Christensen to get into the UI physics program.
Asked on cross-examination if he knew about Christensen’s choices after he left UW, Herndon said, “Not until I saw him in the news.”
His time at UI
Several members of the UI physics program testified Thursday, describing how he was unable to get his doctorate and instead settled for a master’s degree.
They said he started out driven, receiving As and Bs, but then struggled as he did more independent study.
Christensen joined Nadya Mason’s research group in the spring of 2014 after he reached out to her.
“He seemed very enthusiastic,” she said.
He eventually stopped coming to meetings, but after she met with him one on one, “he assured me he wanted to be there,” Mason said.
While he said he had been depressed and gaining weight, she said he thought his situation was improving.
But then in the spring of 2016, he “just stopped showing up” to the lab and wasn’t progressing in his work,” Mason said.
They met again, and she told him, “You don’t seem to want to be here,” she said.
“He agreed,” she said and added he had been waiting for her to contact him.
Around the same time, one of his fellow grad students, Rita Garrido Menacho, said it “seemed like he was losing motivation” and would sign up for time to use the advanced equipment but wouldn’t show up.
Elaine Schulte, the manager of the large introductory physics classes at the time, said she emailed him that spring about missing his weekly TA meetings and never got a response.
Also that spring, she emailed him about one of his student’s exams being missing, which eventually caused the professor to have to rewrite the exam.
Christensen didn’t respond to this email either, Schulte said, calling it “highly unusual” not to respond to multiple emails.
In May 2016, the assistant head of the graduate physics program, Lance Cooper, met with Christensen, who said he didn’t want to continue pursuing his doctorate and decided instead to leave with a master’s.
But Christensen still needed to take enough classes to get his master’s, though they didn’t need to be physics classes.
That fall, he took three non-physics courses and got all Fs, and in the spring, he took four classes, receiving a B, D+, F and C+, which he received in the sociology of deviance course he was taking.
Christensen’s lawyers said they hope to wrap up their case Monday with testimony from Christensen’s sister and mother, and closing arguments are expected either Tuesday or Wednesday.