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Sentencing phase

Lawyers and the family of the late Yingying Zhang enter court on Monday morning in Peoria.

UPDATE: 3 p.m.

PEORIA — U.S. Department of Justice attorney James Nelson gave the opening statement for the prosecution, starting with the last line from Ms. Zhang’s journal: “Life is too short to be ordinary.”

“She had no way of knowing how short her life would be,” he said. Describing her life as extraordinary, he said, “Yingying was far more than just an international scholar,” adding “she was a devoted and loving daughter” and “she was the hope of her family.”

Nelson said her father still has difficulty looking at photos of her, and once she was an adult, was like a sister with her mother, talking all the time.

He said she had a beautiful voice and loved to sing, “but on June 9, 2017, that beautiful voice fell silent.”

Calling for the death penalty, Nelson said it was “not an ordinary crime. It was cold, calculated, cruel and months in the making.”

He went through the government’s eight aggravating factors, including that he planned it, it was cruel, that she spoke poor English and was likely to trust a police officer, and that she was small and the ideal size of a victim.

Also, the attorney said Christensen obstructed the investigation by cleaning the crime scene and hiding her body. “There will be no proper burial in China. There will be no closure. You will see the anguish.”

He said this crime “deserves an extraordinary penalty” and asked the jury to sentence Christensen to death.

For the defense, court-appointed attorney Julie Brain gave the opening, saying Christensen “will die in prison, alone, with strangers.”

“The only question that remains is when his death occurs — at the end of his natural life or at a date the government chooses,” she said.

She described Christensen as someone who struggled his whole life with mental health issues — night terrors, walking in his sleep, debilitating migraines.

When he was 15, she said he was home sick when his father found him running on the porch barefoot in January, then down the driveway into the side of a van.

When he was tested, no drugs were found, and when he came to, he said he was disturbed by what happened, she said.

His grades plummeted, but he got into a technical college, and eventually into the University of Wisconsin, then Illinois.

But he struggled at UI, too, as the demands increased.

She said he sought mental health treatment, but didn’t get the help he needed.

While she said the crime is “his fault,” “this is not a case that deserves the death penalty.”

“He is not a serial killer,” she said, refuting Christensen’s claim of 13 victims.

Said he’s shown no signs of dangerousness in two years in jail.

She encouraged jurors to make a moral decision, to keep an open mind, and to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of release.

UPDATE: 1 p.m.

PEORIA — The parties went through the preliminary jury instructions that will be read this afternoon. There were plenty of disagreements and issues to be determined later, but still on track to start at 1:30 p.m.

The defense wants to argue that if just one juror isn’t for death, then Christensen will get life. The defense said many courts allow this, and that if they can’t, jurors could unnecessarily change their mind because they’re worried about having a hung jury.

Judge Shadid said for the preliminary instruction, he’ll tell them to try to reach unanimous decsion either way. He will decide later about final jury instructions.

They went over the defense’s list of 54 mitigating factors, or reasons Christensen shouldn’t receive death penalty, which range from his alcoholic mother to no criminal history to allegedly not receiving proper care at the UI Counseling Center.

Shadid generally allowed these, even ones about Christensen’s prior mental health issues, despite the defense dropping their mental-health defense. He said he was being very lax.

However, Shadid warned the defense to be careful about connecting a previous diagnosis with Christensen’s mental health on June 9, 2017, when he kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang.

Defense said they also have texts showing Christensen was suffering from the same symptoms he had previously sought help for leading up to June 9.

Jury returns at 1:30 for opening statements.


PEORIA — Monday morning’s pre-sentencing hearing was to clear up what evidence will be allowed during the sentencing phase of convicted murdered Brendt Christensen.

Christensen appeared, dressed in gray button-down shirt and dark dress pants. His dad was also present.

Judge James Shadid recommended some language for a stipulation about the plea negotiations so that lawyers don’t have to testify.

Shadid also said he will allow seven videos of Yingying Zhang’s friends from China describing her and what her loss means to them, as well as a video of Ms. Zhang singing.

Defense said they only received these videos recently, and not the trimmed-down versions that will be played.

Prosecution said they’ll be 10-20 minutes long each, and that they’ve cut out portions of the friends talking about Christensen’s punishment.

Shadid said he’ll allow video of Ms. Zhang’s mother to be played, which the prosecution said was recorded Saturday.

The judge also said he’d allow clips of Christensen making jail calls, which the prosecution said show him asserting his innocence, claiming the government didn’t find anything and that the case is political. Prosecution wants to use these to show lack of remorse.