Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Zhang Christensen mugshot.jpg

Brendt Christensen

Listen to this article

Next Monday — July 8 — round two of the Brendt Christensen murder trial will begin — this one is for all the marbles.

Jurors will choose between two harsh options — mandatory life in prison or the death penalty — for Christensen as punishment for the 2017 kidnapping and killing of University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang.

Federal prosecutors have the more persuasive case to make. In the various gradations of evil, what the former doctoral student in physics did — the murder for sport of a vulnerable target picked at random — and why he did it stands out as particularly horrific.

But federal public defenders have a less-steep hill to climb. The law requires the jury to agree unanimously on the death penalty — all the defense has to do is persuade one of 12 that the convicted murderer’s life should be spared.

Jurors may “hate” Christensen for what he did, as defense lawyer Elizabeth Pollock acknowledged during guilt phase of the case, but that’s not a sufficient reason to kill him.

Pollock’s plea for Christensen’s life during final arguments of the trial was cut short by U.S. Judge James Shadid because it was premature.

Starting Monday, it will be timely and, no doubt, intense.

Last week’s dispute about Christensen’s willingness to help authorities find Ms. Zhang’s body reflects the awful nature of the issue at hand.

In one that was unsealed Friday, his lawyers said finding Ms. Zhang’s remains was "a circumstance 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.”

The defense, in a legal filing, noted that Christensen had offered to assist authorities by telling them how he kidnapped and killed Ms. Zhang and then disposed of her body. It was, of course, an offer driven purely by Christensen’s self-interest.

He didn’t offer assistance. Christensen proposed a quid pro quo — his information in exchange for prosecutors’ dropping the death penalty and agreeing to a life sentence. What he did to and with Ms. Zhang’s body is still his little secret.

Prosecutors will have a lot to say as they present evidence of what are called the “aggravating factors” they contend justify the death penalty.

But, as a matter of practice, death penalty hearings are mostly a defense show, one that can be expected to reach back deep into every aspect of Christensen’s life for anything that might prompt just one juror to feel a pang of sympathy, or, given the facts of this case, moderate even slightly jurors’ justifiable rage over the facts of this case.

Did he have a tough childhood because of family-related issues? Did he ever suffer a physical injury that affected his personality? Was he a victim of drug and alcohol abuse that clouded his thinking? Did he unsuccessfully seek help to address his self-destructive conduct and deviant ideas?

Does he have family members who, despite everything, still love him and would unjustifiably suffer, if he is executed? If so, will they testify, in effect making a personal plea on their loved one’s behalf?

For all practical purposes, there are no limits to the avenues the defense can — and surely will — pursue on Christensen’s behalf.

The defense goal is to humanize Christensen, converting him from a caricature of evil into a living, breathing human being worthy of having his life spared.

Some are confused by the fact that the death penalty is at issue in this case, and not just those unfamiliar with the law.

Over the weekend, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn suggested it was inappropriate for federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty because the State of Illinois banned the death penalty in 2011.

He expressed the opinion that trying Christensen’s case in federal court was “a pretext to pursue the death penalty” and argued that what he considers to be a flawed decision provides “solid grounds for appeal.”

This case is being tried in federal court under federal law that permits the death penalty under special circumstances. To suggest that that is legally out of bounds is incorrect.

Christensen could have been tried under state law in Champaign County Circuit Court or in federal court. Indeed, he can be tried again on essentially the same charge of murder in state court following his conviction in federal court.

Why?

The federal government and the states operate under the “separate sovereigns” doctrine that allows one, both or neither to initiate prosecutions involving what essentially are the same offenses.

In a recent decision involving an Alabama case — Gamble v. United States — the U.S. Supreme Court re-affirmed the long-standing legality of the “separate sovereigns” doctrine. In doing so, the high court rejected Gamble’s claim that being tried twice — once in state court and again in federal court — for essentially the same offense violated the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.

“The feds don’t deserve the right to pull an end run around Illinois law in an effort to kill him,” Zorn wrote.

Actually, they have — and are exercising — their legal authority to prosecute Christensen in federal court and seek the death penalty.

But the law interposes a jury between what the government wants and what the government will get.

Starting Monday, it will being hearing evidence and then decide if the 28-year-old Christensen — both a brilliant student and savage, remorseless killer — should be sentenced to the ultimate punishment or locked away in a maximum security prison with his real peers for the rest of his days.

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.