Listen to this article
Brendt Christensen mugshot

Brendt Christensen

PEORIA — After being convicted last month for kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang, Brendt Christensen was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of release.

The sentence — officially handed down at 4 p.m. today — comes after seven days of often emotional testimony during the sentencing phase, beginning with Ms. Zhang’s family describing how difficult her death has been for them and her friends describing how bright and generous she was.

Christensen looked at his family after the sentence was announced, but had no noticeable reaction. His mother was crying after the sentence was announced.

Ms. Zhang’s family, sitting in the first row, also didn’t appear to have much of a reaction. Her mother, Lifeng Ye, was in the courtroom for the first time during the trial.

Ms. Zhang’s family is “devastated” by the life sentence, their family attorney Steve Beckett said. “Second only to learning that your daughter was missing and ultimately killed.”

For most of the trial, she watched from an overflow room because her lawyers said she often cried at the sight of Christensen.

Shadid read the special verdict form the jury filled out.

He didn’t read every section, but noted that the jury found additional mitigating factors besides the ones argued by the defense, as they were allowed to do.

Shadid discharged them from their duties and thanked them for their service.

Prosecution's response

John Milhiser, U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, issued a statement after the sentence was handed down.

"For his unthinkable acts, he's been held accountable," he said. "He will live the rest of his life in prison and he will die in prison, as he should for these horrendous acts."

While his office pushed hard for the death penalty, Milhiser said, "We respect the decision of the jury."

"We would not have asked for the death penalty if we did not think it was appropriate given the facts in this case, given what this defendant did to Yingying," he said. "But we respect the decision of the jury. It is a hope, and a sincere hope, that the family has some sense of justice and some sense of closure in this case."

He described the death of Ms. Zhang as "an unimaginable tragedy, thousands of miles away from their home."

"They have shown an incredible amount of resolve and strength," he said.

And he thanked prosecuting team, as well as the FBI, University of Illinois police, the McHenry County Sheriff's Department, Illinois State Police and the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, "who all worked to solve this case."

He specifically thanked FBI case agents Andrew Huckstadt and Anthony Manganaro, "who worked tirelessly for two years to make sure this defendant was brought to justice."

On that note, he said the search for Ms. Zhang continues.

"The efforts to locate Yingying have not stopped," he said. "They started two years ago and they'll continue."

Defense attorneys don’t plan to make a statement or hold a press conference.

Questions remain

While the sentence puts an end to the lengthy trial, questions still remain two years after Ms. Zhang was last seen June 9, 2017, entering Christensen’s Saturn Astra near a bus stop on campus.

Most notably, Ms. Zhang’s body still hasn’t been found, and Christensen hasn’t said what he did with it.

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.”

Throughout the trial, FBI agents and UI police detectives described the extensive search for Ms. Zhang after she went missing.

They testified about working 20-hour days in the weeks after she was kidnapped, searching garbage bags at Centennial Park, the Murdock Mine 30 miles south of Champaign and an isolated area near Olympian Drive and Interstate 57.

And the search continued, with an FBI agent describing a search of Clinton Lake in November 2017 and another of Allerton Park in 2018.

* * * * *

PEORIA — After more than eight hours of deliberation, the jury has reached a decision on a sentence for Brendt Christensen.

The sentence —  either life in prison or the death penalty —  will be announced at 2:35 p.m., according to an email from the court clerk’s office.

To be sentenced to death, the decision needs to be unanimous. If not, he’ll receive life in prison without the possibility of release.

The same jury convicted Christensen last month for kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

Lawyers for both sides made their closing arguments Wednesday morning, after seven days of testimony from more than 35 witnesses during the sentencing phase.

UPDATE, 2 p.m.:

A verdict in the trial of Brendt Christensen is expected to be announced shortly.

“We need help,” the jury asked in a letter at 1:35 p.m. “We’d like to know what the results are if there’s no unanimous decision.”

They said the instructions weren’t clear.

If there’s no unanimous decision, Christensen gets life in prison.

The government asked for five minutes, while the defense lawyers seemed to be in a good mood. When they returned, Shadid dictated what he’d tell the jury.

He’s referred them back to the instructions, which say they have a duty to deliberate, but said that if they’re unable to reach a unanimous decision for life or for death, “the court will impose a sentence of life.”

* * * * *

UPDATE, 11 a.m.:

After getting started around 9 a.m. this morning, the jury asked U.S. District Judge Jim Shadid another question.

After Christensen, his lawyers and the prosecutors returned to the courtroom, Judge Shadid read the question. Ms. Zhang's family and their attorneys were also present.

The jury asked how the number of jurors who found a mitigating factor to exist will be used.

After some discussion, Shadid told the jury to refer back to the instructions and send another question if they still needed clarification.

They quickly sent back another question, asking how the number of jurors who found a mitigating factor to exist could be used after the trial.

“We are inclined not to share our results,” a juror wrote.

The confusion stems from the special verdict form, which asks but not requires jurors to list next to each mitigating factor the number of jurors who found it proven by a preponderance of the evidence.

After more discussion, Judge Shadid told them they should not consider any potential appeal or proceeding and reminded them that they are “asked but not required to report” the total.

* * * * *