URBANA — Federal prosecutors did not believe Brendt Christensen’s offer to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence of life in prison would lead to finding Yingying Zhang’s remains, they stated in pretrial documents that were unsealed Friday.
At the urging of Ms. Zhang’s family, on Dec. 6, 2017, prosecutors first suggested a plea deal that would take the death penalty off the table. It was contingent on finding Ms. Zhang’s remains.
A week later, the defense suggested a modification that would make the deal contingent only on Christensen providing complete and accurate information about the location of the remains of the missing Chinese scholar he was convicted this week of kidnapping and killing June 9, 2017.
“As we read that language, you believe that it is unlikely that her remains will be recovered with the defendant’s cooperation and assistance,” prosecutors then wrote to the defense, asking whether they understood the modified offer correctly.
“That same day, defense counsel verbally confirmed that the United States correctly understood the position of defense counsel,” the prosecution wrote.
The prosecution then told this to Ms. Zhang’s family, which provided their wishes about Christensen’s sentence to the U.S. Justice Department.
Earlier this week, Ms. Zhang’s family said they were “leery” of Christensen’s modified offer, as they didn’t trust he would tell the truth, and “there was no promise that Yingying’s remains would be discovered.”
In another document unsealed Friday, Christensen’s lawyers said finding Ms. Zhang’s remains was something “over which he had no control. No matter how badly he felt or how desperately he wished he could undo the damage he had caused, he could not guarantee that the victim’s remains would be found.”
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rejected the defense’s modified plea offer, and on Jan. 18, 2018, he directed the prosecutors to seek the death penalty against Christensen.
Despite extensive search efforts, Ms. Zhang’s body has never been found, and Christensen told his ex-girlfriend in a wire recording before he was arrested that he’d never tell anyone its whereabouts.
Prosecutors haven’t publicly said why they rejected the offer, but Shadid’s order said that the “United States contends that the circumstances of the plea negotiations show that defendant did not accept responsibility.”
“She’s gone forever,” he said.
In the newly unsealed documents, prosecutors lay out the timeline of Christensen rejecting not one but two offers by the prosecution to possibly spare him the death penalty if he said where Ms. Zhang’s remains were:
— Four days after their client was arrested, Christensen’s then-attorneys were approached by federal prosecutors about a possible deal: Tell them where Ms. Zhang’s body was and he might be spared the death penalty.
Christensen met the same day with his lawyers, who told the government on July 3, 2017, that “the defendant denied his guilt and would not be providing any information.”
— About five months after he was arrested, negotiations resumed as the U.S. Department of Justice was considering whether to seek the death penalty. Around that time, Ms. Zhang’s family urged prosecutors to consider a plea deal.
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“We continue to desire that we may return Yingying to China,” they wrote. “If there is anyway in the review process to obtain the necessary information to permit the decent and respectful return of her remains to achieve a peaceful end for our family’s nightmare, we would earnestly ask that this be explored with the Defendant and his lawyers.
“In accordance with Chinese culture and tradition, we hope to bring her home for a dignified burial where her spirit may be at rest and we may have peace.”
— In November 2017, Christensen’s lawyers acknowledged the “strength of the government’s case” in a letter to the Justice Department’s Capital Case Review committee, according to prosecutors.
We “firmly believe that Ms. Zhang’s family and both parties would be well-served by an early resolution,” the defense allegedly wrote.
— On Dec. 6, 2017, prosecutors drafted a conditional plea agreement that would be subject to Sessions’ approval.
“This plea agreement is completely contingent upon the United States successfully locating and recovering all of the victim’s identifiable bodily remains through the defendant’s assistance and cooperation,” the draft agreement stated. “If the efforts of the United States, with defendant’s assistance, to locate and recover all of the victim’s identifiable bodily remains proves to be unsuccessful, the United States has the right, in its sole discretion, to void this plea agreement.”
A week later, the defense suggested its modification.
The prosecution says this plea negotiation history suggests Christensen has shown a lack of remorse.
“Neither the defendant, nor his counsel, discussed pleading guilty or assisting in locating the victim’s remains until after the Capital Case Committee began reviewing the case for the possibility of seeking a sentence of death, and after his attorneys were aware of the strength of the government’s case,” they wrote. “In fact, no such formal discussions took place until the United States forwarded a plea agreement to defense counsel at the request of the victim’s family.
“Even then, his attorneys rejected a plea contingency that required successful recovery of the victim’s identifiable bodily remains.”
The plea offer came up in pretrial motions because prosecutors didn’t want Christensen’s lawyers to use it during the trial to claim that their client expressed some remorse.
U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid said Thursday that it would be allowed during the sentencing hearing, which begins July 8, but the government would also be permitted to put the offer in context.
The plea offer was first revealed Tuesday when the defense accidentally included a paragraph about it in a public document that was supposed to be sealed.
The defense also wants to prevent Ms. Zhang’s family from making inaccurate statements about Christensen, such as that he refused to help, when his plea offer indicates otherwise.
“The defendant is willing to admit to his crimes, forego a trial and accept the second severest sentence that the criminal justice system may impose,” his lawyers wrote in April.