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UPDATE, 5:35 p.m.:

PEORIA — A female juror who left the courtroom during testimony from Yingying Zhang's family was crying, and the defense thought it was one whose daughter currently has a high-risk pregnancy. The defense said that juror couldn't be fair and asked for some remedy. Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said it was the first time she'd seen that happen.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller also noted that it was the first time he'd participated in the capital sentencing of a person who murdered the daughter of the person testifying.

The judge met with the juror, Miller and Pollock, asked if the juror was OK now and could be fair, and she then returned.

The video continued playing, with Ms. Zhang's mom saying, "I really, really wanted to be a grandma. I wanted to hold my grandchild."

Said she initially didn't want her daughter to go to the US, but "since she was so determined to do so, I decided to give her my full support."

Asked about the impact of her loss, her mother said, "It is really, really painful. It is really, really hard. It is so, so difficult."

"Our entire family does not know how to carry on," she said. Said it was hard to go on from one day to the next.

Her father also finished his testimony, talking about how he and his wife have not been able to sleep well since Ms. Zhang went missing.

Said he's not able to concentrate and recently fell down the stairs.

"I do not know how to live the remainder of my life," he said. "Yingying ... she's my pride and also my everything."

FBI Agent Andrew Huckstadt returned to the stand in the afternoon, and the prosecution played many of the gruesome tapes made the evening of the campus vigil, such as when Brendt Christensen laughed while talking about how he killed Ms. Zhang.

They also played tapes of him in jail making calls asserting his innocence and casting doubt on the government's case against him. The first was from July 3, 2017, four days after he was arrested, to his wife: "All I can say is I'm innocent. ... They're desperate. That's why I'm here."

— July 17, 2017, to his dad: "The charges depend on if they know what happened to her."

— Aug. 26, to his mom: "It's all circumstantial. ... I didn't do it."

— Sept. 2, to his wife: The recording is "probably going to be played during trial. … I'm not gonna look good. ... I'm innocent. I didn't do anything wrong."

— Sept. 5, to his mom: He questions whether the government can prove he kidnapped her, as the footage only shows her entering his car on her own. "If she was dead, she'd be found. ... I don't understand what they think I did."

— Oct. 3, to his mom: "I didn't do it."

— Nov. 12, to his dad: "This seems like 99.9% chance political."

— June 9, 2019, to his now ex-wife, the day his ex-girlfriend testified: She says she hopes his ex-girlfriend "passes out up there" and is "carried away in a stretcher." Christensen repeatedly says he can't comment, but says if he could, he would make a joke. His wife catches on, and says they'd need a "really big stretcher, a plus-size stretcher."

Pollock agreed that Christensen's ex-wife "sounded fairly nasty" in that clip and wanted to play a less-nasty one, but Judge Jim Shadid said it would make more sense during their case.

The defense's case starts tomorrow, with testimony from Christensen's father.

* * * * *

UPDATE, 3:15 p.m.:

PEORIA — There was emotional testimony from Ms. Zhang’s father as well as a video from her mother Tuesday afternoon in court.

Her father, Ronggao Zhang, started crying when shown a picture of him with her at the train station on her way to the U.S. and asked if that was the last time he saw her.

“My life without her will not be complete,” he said.

Before the prosecution played a video of Ms. Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, Brendt Christensen appeared to be crying, grabbing a tissue and bringing it to his eyes.

During testimony from the family, he has been looking down or had his eyes closed.

“She was a very good child,” her mother said, adding she was always mature for her age and an excellent student.

She said she would help out with chores without needing to be asked, and would start doing her homework right away.

Said she would help out when donations were requested at school, and would give her financial aid to students in more need.

“How am I supposed to carry on living?” her mom asked. “I really don’t know how to carry on.”

She said she was pleased with Ms. Zhang’s boyfriend and looked forward to them getting married.

“I also so much wanted to see her in a wedding dress,” she said while crying.

She said she can no longer go to weddings because she thinks of Ms. Zhang.

“My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress,” she said. “I really wanted to be a grandma.”

At that point, a female juror appeared to get up and leave, leading to a 15-minute break.

* * * * *

UPDATE, 1 p.m.:

PEORIA — As the sentencing phase of Brendt Christensen continued Tuesday morning, the jury heard additional testimony from Yingying Zhang’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou.

“She was a good pingpong player, not a good badminton player, but she enjoyed it,” Hou said. He added that “she loved being here” in the U.S. and wanted to do better research, make a contribution and learn a different culture.

Christensen evidence01

Christensen trial evidence June 12, 2019. Ms. Zhang eating dinner in Beijing.Christensen trial evidence June 12, 2019. Ms. Zhang eating dinner in Beijing.

He said he hoped to finish his Ph.D. and get his post-doctorate in the U.S., and then return to China with her, and that they planned to get married in October 2017.

He said Ms. Zhang’s death has been especially hard on her parents. “Yingying was their everything” and hope for the future. “Now they lose their future.” “They cannot eat, they cannot sleep.”

He said her mom in particular has cried almost every day and that her house has gotten worse and worse. He said he is “so worried about them.”

Hou said he tried to help them move on, “but how, without finding her?” Their “only desire is to find her and bring her back home.”

“They feel helpless,” he said. “They blame themselves.” And, “I will never give up hope to find her.”

For him, he said losing Ms. Zhang “totally changed my track of life.” She was “the most important person” in his life, and “especially knowing the facts of what he did” to her is “too cruel and painful.”

At that point, the defense objected and the jury was excused, as the victim’s family is not allowed to opine on the defendant, his crime or his punishment.

The defense called for a mistrial, which was denied, and instead, the last part of the boyfriend’s comment was stricken and the jury was instructed not to consider it.

“I don’t think it rises to the level of mistrial,” Judge Jim Shadid said. The comment “didn’t catch anyone by surprise.”

The jury also watched a video interview with another college friend of Ms. Zhang, Shuang Wu.

Wu said Ms. Zhang was devoted to her family, and that her mom didn’t want her to study abroad, but instead wanted her to stay in China and work.

She said Ms. Zhang had “strong self-discipline” and while she “looked thin and small from the outside,” she had “strong independence and ideas.”

Ms. Zhang “never gave up on her dream to study abroad,” Wu said. And she “would almost always take initiative to take care of others,” Wu said, giving her friends an alarm they could put on their backpacks in case something happened to them.

She also invited Wu to go to plays or go skiing, new experiences for her: “She had a positive energy for life.”

So Wu said she was surprised when Ms. Zhang went missing that she would get into a stranger’s car.

“I was in great shock,” she said, adding that Ms. Zhang had an awareness of her self-protection. “Even to this day, we haven’t accepted this fact and recovered from this grief.”

Later in the morning, lead FBI agent Anthony Manganaro testified, repeating much of what was presented in the guilt phase.

The prosecution seemed to be trying to establish that Christensen took steps to obstruct the investigation, showing clips of him lying to investigators and receipts of his Drano purchases.

Manganaro said that they spent a good deal of time canvassing the residential area where Christensen said he let Ms. Zhang out, and that Christensen extensively cleaned his car and apartment.

They also played jail phone calls of Christensen telling his wife July 2, 2017, to tell his girlfriend not to talk to anyone except their lawyers.

He also told her to delete his Reddit account and comments.

In cross-examination, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock pointed out that he asked her to delete his Reddit account because the members of the University of Illinois-based community on that site were trying to identify his account.

And she noted that Christensen lied about a lot in his interrogation videos, so the prosecution shouldn’t believe him when he said Ms. Zhang had very broken English.

And she noted that while Christensen cleaned in both his bedroom and bathroom, Ms. Zhang’s DNA was only found in the bedroom.

In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Freres noted that bathrooms are easier to clean because they have less porous surfaces, and that the dog alerted to the presence of a body there.

In another response, Pollock noted that the dog alerted in the bathroom, but not the bedroom where blood had soaked to underneath the carpet.

They are on break for lunch now. Ms. Zhang’s father and brother are expected to testify this afternoon; additionally, a video from her mother will be shown.


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