Christensen sentencing

Family members of slain University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang enter the federal courthouse in Peoria on Monday, July 8, 2019 for the start of the sentencing phase of the trial of Brendt Christensen, who has been convicted of kidnapping and killing her.

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PEORIA — During Brendt Christensen’s trial, the jury heard hours of him talking to a counselor, to his wife, and most graphically, to his girlfriend about how he said he killed visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

But until Monday, the jury had not heard from Ms. Zhang, who Christensen was convicted two weeks ago of kidnapping and killing in June 2017.

For the first and probably the only time, the jury heard her in a two-minute video as the lead singer of her grad school band at Peking University singing the early-2000s hit “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne.

In a grad school contest, Ms. Zhang placed in the top 10 singers, and “on stage, she was a sweet little girl with great energy,” her friend Kaiyun Zhao said in a recorded video played in court Monday, according to a translation.

Her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, testified Monday on the first day of the sentencing phase of the trial that Ms. Zhang loved to sing and play the guitar, and that they would sing together at karaoke rooms.

Soon after she came to the University of Illinois in April 2017 to study photosynthesis in corn and soybeans, she bought a used guitar.

“Sometimes she said she was lonely (in Urbana), so she wanted a guitar as some kind of company,” Hou said. But “she was quite busy, so she seldom played it.”

LIVE: Christensen sentencing phase, Day 1

After Ms. Zhang was kidnapped, investigators took pictures of her Orchard Downs apartment, showing the guitar in her closet.

And during a campus vigil to raise awareness for Ms. Zhang’s disappearance, after Hou sang a song, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Everyone stood except Christensen, according to testimony during the trial from his ex-girlfriend, who attended the vigil with him while wearing a wire for the FBI.

She would record him describing in gruesome detail how he killed Ms. Zhang, leading to his arrest the next day.

He’s now facing his sentence: life in prison without the possibility of release or the death penalty.

Each side made their opening statements Monday to the same jury that convicted Christensen two weeks ago.

The guilty verdict “ensured Brendt Christensen will die in prison, alone, with strangers,” defense attorney Julie Brain said to begin her opening statement. “The only question that remains is when his death occurs — at the end of his natural life or at a date the government chooses.”

Here's what to expect as Christensen trial's penalty phase gets underway

Under consideration

The jury will weigh the prosecution’s aggravating factors with the defense’s mitigating factors and must unanimously agree that Christensen should be sentenced to death. If one juror disagrees, he’ll receive life in prison.

The defense is trying to gain some sympathy for Christensen, describing him as an outwardly polite, nice and smart person who was struggling his entire life on the inside with mental-health issues.

While Brain admitted that he “took their beloved daughter away from them” and that “this was Brendt’s fault,” she argued that “this is not a case that deserves the death penalty.”

“He is not a serial killer,” she said, again casting doubt on details Christensen mentioned in the recording made by his ex-girlfriend. “He has shown no signs of dangerousness in two years in jail.”

She encouraged each juror to make “a moral determination” and to keep an open mind.

“None of us are defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done,” she said.

When Christensen was a kid, she said he was “polite, quiet, never got in trouble.”

In kindergarten, he was placed in a gifted program, but even at a young age, she said he showed signs of mental problems.

“He had terrible, awful night terrors,” she said, and he walked in his sleep and suffered from debilitating migraines that continued throughout his life.

When he was 15, she described an incident in which Christensen was home sick when he started running barefoot across the back deck in January, continued into the driveway and into the side of a van.

When the paramedics arrived, he was “completely out of his mind,” Brain said, combative and wrestling with them.

When he came to, Christensen was disturbed by what happened, Brain said. “He worried that something like that could happen again” and that he could hurt someone.

While his grades plummeted, she said he made it into a technical college, and later was able to transfer to University of Wisconsin–Madison.

He then moved to Urbana to pursue his doctorate in physics at the University of Illinois, where Brain said he initially did well when his classes were structured.

But as the demands increased and he did more independent research, Brain said his performance declined.

In 2016, his wife and his adviser recognized he needed mental health treatment, Brain said, and that January he was treated for depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse and sleep problems.

But she said nothing worked, and in the summer, Christensen “decided to give up” and finish with just a master’s degree.

She said his marriage then soon fell apart, especially after he told her that December about his interest in serial killers.

When he visited the UI Counseling Center in March 2017, he told an intern about his interest in serial killers and that he had made some murderous plans, but abandoned them.

While Brain said the counseling center should have done more to help him, she again said that the crime was “his fault.”

“What would make him do such a horrible thing?” she said. “We don’t pretend to have all the answers.”

Brain leaned heavily on the mental health issues in Christensen’s family and throughout his life, despite earlier this spring abandoning a mental-health defense of Christensen.

U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid is allowing them to introduce evidence that he suffered from mental-health issues earlier in his life, but told them to avoid connecting that to his actions June 9, 2017, when he kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang.

‘The defendant’s own words’

Justice Department attorney James Nelson agreed that Christensen is at fault.

“The defendant determined his own destiny,” Nelson said.

He called Christensen’s crime “cold, calculated, cruel and months in the making.”

He said the prosecutors plan to prove beyond a reasonable doubt eight aggravating factors, including that Ms. Zhang died as a result of being kidnapped, that Christensen substantially planned the attack and that it was especially heinous or cruel.

“The defendant’s own words” will show that, Nelson said, as well as the forensic evidence showing Ms. Zhang’s DNA in a blood stain beneath the carpet under Christensen’s bed.

And they plan to argue he obstructed the investigation by destroying or concealing Ms. Zhang’s body, which has never been found.

“There will be no proper burial in China,” Nelson said. “There will be no closure. You will see the anguish.”

Nelson spent most of his time focusing on the career and promise of Ms. Zhang, who was described as a “devoted and loving daughter” and the “hope of her family.”

He began his opening statement by reading the last line from her journal: “Life is too short to be ordinary,” Ms. Zhang wrote in English.

Nelson played on the word ordinary throughout his opening, saying “this was not an ordinary crime,” that it deserved an “extraordinary penalty,” and described Ms. Zhang as extraordinary.

“She had no way of knowing how short her life would be,” he said. “Yingying was far more than just an international scholar.”

Nelson said her father still has difficulty looking at photos of her, and that her mother was like a sister to Ms. Zhang once she grew up.

He also described her “beautiful voice,” but said that on June 9, 2017, “that beautiful voice fell silent.”

‘The best girl I’ve ever met’

The prosecution’s case will include testimony and interviews from several friends and family members of Ms. Zhang about the impact of her death.

Her boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, began testifying Monday afternoon, and her younger brother and father are expected to testify Tuesday, along with a video from her mother.

“She’s kind, she’s brave, she’s smart, she’s active, she’s optimistic,” Hou said. “She’s the best girl I’ve ever met.”

The prosecution played interviews with four of her college friends, along with English translations.

Her college roommate, Ye Cai, said she was smiley, volunteered and called her parents regularly.

“She was always smiling and very easygoing,” Cai said, according to a translation. “She was a free spirit.”

Another college friend, Lisha Fang, said she was concerned about Ms. Zhang studying in the U.S.

“Yingying was rather innocent,” she said. “I was concerned about her safety.”

But she also said she was happy for Ms. Zhang because studying in America had been a goal for her.

“When she encountered a new challenge, she would be very energetic,” Fang said.

When Ms. Zhang arrived, Fang said she realized her English wasn’t as good as she thought and that getting around town wasn’t as convenient as in China.

After she went missing, Fang said “I cried for three days.”

Another graduate school friend, Xiao Zhang, described her as a leader and a great singer.

“For a long time … I did not believe this was real. I felt that somewhere, she is out there,” she said. “I’m still in shock.”

And a fourth friend, Kaiyun Zhao, said that when Ms. Zhang went home, she would return with food for her friends cooked by her grandma, and that Ms. Zhang wanted to study abroad on her own efforts.

She didn’t want to burden her family, which isn’t wealthy, Zhao said.

“She hoped to improve the life of her family,” Zhao said.

When Ms. Zhang went missing, Zhao thought maybe she was just lost, but then figured she would find a way to contact someone and wouldn’t want her friends to worry.

“I was in complete denial,” she said. “I just felt so heartbroken for quite a while. I often dreamed of our time together.”

Hou will continue testifying Tuesday, and prosecutors said they may wrap up their case today or early Wednesday.

After that, the defense will call witnesses and present their evidence.

The sentencing phase is expected to last at least a week.

Reporter

Ben Zigterman is a reporter covering business at The News-Gazette. His email is bzigterman@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@bzigterman).