Sparing convicted murderer Brendt Christensen’s life would be the “moral” thing for jurors to do. But seeing that he serves life in prison would be the harsher of the two options jurors have, because he will “die in prison, alone, with strangers.”
The horrific death of University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang is both Christensen’s “fault” and an indecipherable mystery.
“What would make him do such a horrible thing?” defense lawyer Julie Brain asked jurors in her opening statement Monday during the penalty phase of the Christensen case in federal court in Peoria.
Defending the indefensible is — at least sometimes — the defense lawyer’s lot in life. They deserve no sympathy for their burden because this is, after all, the business they chose.
But the rhetorical tap-dancing in which Christensen’s lawyer must engage remains fascinating because of the nature of the kidnapping/murder case and the stakes involved.
How does one speak on behalf of a defendant whose criminal acts represent what surely must be the essence of evil?
There’s a limit to how much the defense can minimize, explain and excuse Christensen’s conduct.
Because those words don’t really fit what the defense is trying to say, Christensen’s attorneys have to fall back on trying to do so without seeming to do so.
“We don’t pretend to have all the answers,” Brain told jurors, while suggesting the former physics doctoral student acted while under the control of dark, alien forces.
Federal prosecutors face no such linguistic strictures. They can call a spade — the awful facts — a spade and point directly at Christensen.
Prosecutor James Nelson cited the obvious when he characterized Christensen’s conduct as “cold, calculated, cruel and months in the making.”
While prosecutors have stronger facts on which to rely, the defense has the advantage in that the seven-man, five-woman jury must unanimously decide to impose death. It takes just one juror to spare Christensen’s life.
But to what end? The defense is surely correct that dying a day at a time in a federal prison isn’t much of a living.
In death penalty cases, the defense must try to humanize the defendant to get jurors to see him as a complicated human being with strengths and weaknesses that support a jury’s decision to spare his life.
So it’s no surprise that prosecutors are trying to do the same thing with the victim — Ms. Zhang.
She was a brilliant, talented person whose agricultural scholarship promised much to her home country — China — and perhaps the world. She was a wonderful daughter, a beloved fiance, a special sister and a kind, trusting person embracing the adventure of a lifetime: doctoral studies at a great American university.
Jurors on Monday got to hear recordings of her voice and see the agony of loss etched on the faces of her loved ones.
Further, as the defense suggests that Christensen didn’t really torture Ms. Zhang or kill her in a “heinous” manner, jurors can reflect on the facts of this case.
In his final argument in the trial’s guilt phase, federal prosecutor Eugene Miller asked jurors to contemplate Ms. Zhang’s experience when she knew she was trapped in Christensen’s car and that he was forcibly taking her someplace she did not want to go.
That’s the word he used — Ms. Zhang’s American dream had turned into a nightmare.
Those who have followed this trial all know what happened next in Christensen’s apartment — her valiant, doomed fight for life; Christensen’s destruction and disposal of her body; his attempted cleansing of the crime scene; and his obvious satisfaction over what he mistakenly considered a perfect crime.
The defense is trying — and may succeed — to dilute those ugly facts. They can cite problems in Christensen’s life — his physical and mental health problems, his drug and alcohol abuse, his family and marital issues and his failed efforts to seek treatment. They can point out that Christensen, like Ms. Zhang, also has people who love him — most obviously his father — and would mourn his loss.
That Brendt Christensen, the defense will argue, is the real Brendt Christensen, the one worthy of being spared an execution date.
Is it? Only one person knows the answer to that question, and it’s the same person who knows what happened to Ms. Zhang’s remains.
But the facts suggest otherwise. There also is the ruthless killer who used his intelligence and guile to talk a trusting Ms. Zhang into his car at a campus bus stop. And there is the self-satisfied narrator of the FBI wiretap who gloated over what he did to Ms. Zhang and how he did it. The jury’s decision about one will affect them all.