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What's there to say when there's nothing left to say?

The answer — even for a lawyer — is not much.

That's one conclusion to draw from the stunningly brief 10-minute closing argument federal Assistant Public Defender Elisabeth Pollock made Monday on behalf of her client — accused murderer Brendt Christensen — at the federal courthouse in Peoria.

While federal prosecutor Eugene Miller spent about 70 minutes going over the facts and the law in excruciating detail, Pollock made no serious effort to argue that the prosecution erred in charging Christensen with the June 9, 2017, kidnapping resulting in the death of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang on the University of Illinois campus.

Jurors confirmed the defense's perspective, deliberating for less than two hours before returning a guilty verdict against Christensen. The trial will now move into the sentencing phase, which will not begin until July 8.

Deliberations included a lunch that was brought in for jurors as well as the time it took for them to sign the verdict forms.

But, as Pollock told the seven-man, five-woman jury, there's "not much dispute about what happened."

Indeed, Pollock acknowledged that the horrific facts linking Christensen to Ms. Zhang's death "triggers (jurors') emotions."

"It makes you hate him," she said.

It's a surprise to hear a defense lawyer talk that way about a client. But given the circumstances, it's not a surprise in this case.

The defense threw in the towel early on.

After pre-trial motions to throw out incriminating evidence failed, the defense had no operating room to wage a credible defense against the incredibly persuasive evidence authorities compiled linking Christensen to Ms. Zhang's disappearance and death.

If there was any room at all, it disappeared during the defense's reverse-Perry-Mason-moment during opening statement two weeks ago. That's when assistant federal defender George Tassef acknowledged to jurors that Christensen had done what Tassef called the "unthinkable," kidnapping and killing Ms. Zhang.

That's why the defense will consider itself victorious if it persuades jurors to spare the life of the 28-year-old former physics doctoral student.

Tassef took the initial step in that direction when he tried to build some empathy for Christensen. He portrayed his client as a successful graduate student whose life became clouded in an alcoholic haze that was dominated by fantasies of becoming a serial killer, a la Ted Bundy.

During her brief final argument, Pollock picked up on that theme. She suggested that Christensen was a "happily married, successful student" who was led astray by alcohol and an introduction to kinky sex that convinced him there was a "link" between "sex and violence."

She acknowledged his criminal activities were "Brendt's fault" but urged jurors to look further into the case before condemning him.

"We're trying to show you some context," Pollock said.

There's a time for that, and U.S. Judge James Shadid, responding to prosecution objections, told Pollock it was in the sentencing phase of the case.

"This is the guilty, not guilty phase. Let's keep it to that," Shadid told her.

For his part, Miller delivered a lengthy recitation of the facts, noting security camera video showing Ms. Zhang get into Christensen's car on campus and tape recorded comments in which he bragged in detail about how he had kidnapped Ms. Zhang, how hard she had fought to survive and how he had disposed of her body in a way that made it impossible to ever find.

Through it all, Christensen sat calmly at the defense table, looking more like a spectator, not a defendant charged with a brutal crime. He occasionally took a sip of water, folded his arms or looked downward, but was otherwise stoic.

Based on the evidence, Miller pieced together for jurors a scenario — one the defense challenged as speculative — in which Christensen tricked Ms. Zhang into getting into his car under the guise that he was a police officer, subdued her and took her to his apartment, where he raped and killed her.

"It's chilling to think of the fear and panic she must have felt," Miller told jurors.

While investigators have laid out in detail most of the case, there's one major mystery that may never be resolved, a secret that Christensen is closely guarding.

What did he do with her body that caused him to tell, without further details, a friend that Ms. Zhang is "gone forever."

Further, what role will it play in the upcoming sentencing hearing if Christensen continues to retain sole knowledge in the face of defense efforts to seek mercy for a remorseless killer who showed none to an innocent victim he picked at random?

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at or 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is