UPDATE, 4:40 p.m.:
PEORIA — The jury deliberating Brendt Christensen's fate will break at 5 p.m. today and resume its deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid met with the lawyers and Christensen around 4:30 p.m.
The jury had sent him a note asking if they could leave at 5 p.m., to which he wrote "you may" and that he would see them tomorrow at 9 a.m.
Lawyers for both sides seemed to be in a good mood as they waited. Shadid told them there was no need for them to be in the courtroom at 9 a.m., just when something happens. He also said he'd tell the six alternate jurors to still show up, but that they won't be kept in the courthouse.
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UPDATE, 3:45 p.m.:
PEORIA — The jury asked Judge Jim Shadid three questions via notes.
The first was asked just before 3 p.m. and had to do with whether the prosecution’s aggravating factor of future dangerousness referred to while he was in prison or if he was free or had never been caught.
After all the lawyers and Christensen returned to the courtroom, Shadid returned. After brief discussion, they agreed to him circling “in prison” and signing his name.
The note was returned to the jury, which then said it had more questions and was putting them into writing.
At 3:30, the court security officer handed the clerk a note with two new questions. Shadid returned and read them.
The first asked if the jury was supposed to quantify the number of jurors who found each mitigating factor proved by a preponderance of the evidence. Both sides agreed the answer is yes.
The second question asked whether the jurors should consider at this stage whether they personally think a factor is mitigating.
Both sides agreed to refer the jury to the instructions, which tell them to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors after they determine which exist.
Shadid wrote “yes” next to the first question and signed it and on the back of the note, then wrote out his answer to the second question.
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UPDATE, 2 p.m.:
PEORIA — After the prosecution’s 58-minute closing statement, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock spoke for 64 minutes. Then Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller gave a 58-minute rebuttal.
At 1:31 p.m., the jury was dismissed to deliberate.
“I expect it will take some time,” Judge Jim Shadid said.
The public will be given a 30-minute warning that a decision has been reached before it is announced.
After seven days of testimony from more than 35 witnesses, a jury of seven men and five women will begin deliberating today over whether the convicted kidnapper and killer lives or dies.
“We’re finally here,” Pollock said to begin her closing. “I’m not going to deny the fact that Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang.”
She said it was admitted the first day of trial with Christensen’s permission.
“I’m not going to make excuses or explain why” he committed his crime, she said. “Brendt did that, on his own. It’s inexcusable.”
“If you have a soul, it pained you as much as it pained me,” she said about testimony from Ms. Zhang’s family. “I’m sorry,” she said to the family.
But she said the full picture of Christensen’s life would show that he doesn’t deserve the death penalty, as he was a bright and polite young man who nonetheless failed to control his inner demons in 2016 and 2017.
She said he had no criminal record, followed the rules and was a loving, caring and gentle child.
She also said his family had a history of alcohol and drug-abuse and mental-health issues, and that Christensen suffered from migraines, depression, anxiety and alcohol and drug abuse.
She talked about how he went to the UI Counseling Center, but argued they “had some communication issues” and didn’t provide adequate care.
“He’s leaving in a coffin no matter what you do,” she said. “This is the last time he’s going to wear clothes not given to him by a prison.”
She argued “Brendt is not the worst of the worst,” as he tried to seek help.
And she emphasized that each juror must make a decision about Christensen’s sentence.
“We have stood with Brendt for almost two years,” she said, holding back tears as she walked to the defense table and literally stood by Christensen. “He is not just the worst thing he ever did.”
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UPDATE, 11:15 a.m.:
PEORIA — A full courtroom watched as closing arguments began Wednesday morning. The prosecution just made its case, and after a brief recess, the defense will follow.
Yingying Zhang’s mother, father, boyfriend and brother showed up in the main courtroom this morning, but after some deliberation in Judge Jim Shadid's chambers, her mother didn’t return.
Brendt Christensen’s mother and father are also in attendance. He frequently looked at them and smiled. He’s wearing a white dress shirt and dark gray pants.
Also in court: members of the FBI who worked on the case and representatives from the University of Illinois Police Department.
Prosecutor James Nelson argued that “justice must be done” and asked “Is this a minimum-sentence case?”
He acknowledged the grief of Christensen’s family if he’s sentenced to death, but said the “source of that pain sits in that chair,” referring to Christensen.
He described the impact on Ms. Zhang’s family, as they placed great hope in her.
“That’s why Yingying fought so hard. She had so much to live for,” he said.
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Original story, published 8 a.m.:
PEORIA — Lawyers will make their final pitches a little after 9 a.m. today for why convicted killer Brendt Christensen should or should not receive the death penalty.
After U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid reads instructions to the jury, the attorneys will tie together the evidence presented over the last seven days of the sentencing phase and eight days of the guilt phase last month.
During that phase, it took the jury less than two hours to find Christensen guilty of kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.
During the first phase, a quick guilty verdict was expected, as Christensen’s lawyers admitted in their opening statements that Christensen killed Ms. Zhang.
He kidnapped her June 9, 2017, while she was waiting for a bus near campus, took her back to his apartment and killed her.
He was arrested June 30, 2017, a day after he attended a campus vigil for Ms. Zhang’s disappearance and was recorded by his ex-girlfriend describing in gruesome detail how he said he killed Ms. Zhang.
Investigators also found Ms. Zhang’s DNA on a baseball bat he said he hit her in the head with and in a blood stain on the bottom of the carpet beneath his bed.
During the sentencing phase, it’s unclear what decision the jury will make and how long it will take to reach that decision.
Unlike a typical case, there can’t be a hung jury during death penalty deliberations; if the decision isn’t unanimous for death, he gets life in prison.
That could in theory speed the process up, but even just the paperwork itself is much more complicated than during the guilt phase, when they filled out a simple one-page form for each of the three counts he was facing.
(Christensen was also found guilty on two counts of lying to the FBI for changing his story about what he was doing the day Ms. Zhang went missing.)
In this case, the jury will have to indicate on the verdict form which of the government’s “aggravating factors,” or reasons for the death penalty, they unanimously agreed exist.
And then they’ll have to indicate how many jurors agreed to which of the defense’s “mitigating factors,” or reasons against the death penalty.
The prosecution has eight aggravating factors they are trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and the jury can only consider an aggravating factor if they all agree on it.
And the defense has about 50 mitigating factors they are trying to prove by a preponderance of the evidence, and each juror can consider only the ones they think were proven.
The defense’s factors are much more granular, for example, using separate mitigating factors for a history of mental illness on his mother’s side and his father’s side.
The conviction put a cap on a case that has captivated the University of Illinois community and garnered international attention.
The jurors can also come up with their own mitigating factors.
After deciding which factors were proven, the jurors will then weigh the various factors.
“You must not simply count the number of aggravating and mitigating factors,” U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid told the jury at the beginning of the sentencing phase. “You must instead consider the weight and the value of each factor.”
Ultimately, he told them, the decision is up to them, as the law never requires the death penalty to be imposed.
“The law leaves this decision exclusively to you, the jury,” he said. “Whichever sentence you choose, death or life imprisonment without the possibility of release, the Court is required to impose that sentence.”
Once the jury reaches a decision, the court will give the parties about a 30-minutes heads up before it’s announced.