Brendt Christensen has been found guilty in the kidnapping and death of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, setting the stage for what could be the first death sentence handed down within Illinois since the state abolished capital punishment in 2011.
The 12-person jury deliberated for less than two hours to reach the verdict, which was largely expected given that Christensen’s own defense team has repeatedly said during trial he was responsible for Zhang’s kidnapping and death.
Christensen, a former University of Illinois Ph.D. candidate in physics, was also found guilty of two counts of making false statements to the FBI.
He did not flinch when the verdict was read.
Outside the courthouse, Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, read a statement in Chinese to the media as Yingying Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, sobbed.
“There is no language that can describe our pain and suffering,” a printed copy of the statement in English reads, in part. “We hope and believe that this trial will eventually bring justice to Yingying and us.”
The same jury that convicted Christensen will be brought back for sentencing beginning July 8. The sentencing phase will play out much like another trial, with opening and closing statements from both sides, and presentation of evidence before the jury makes its decision.
Because he was convicted of a federal crime of kidnapping resulting in death, Christensen faces only two options: a life sentence or the death penalty.
‘It’s Brendt’s fault’
Jurors listened to eight days of testimony over the last two weeks in the landmark case, which culminated in closing statements Monday morning. Just as they did on day one, Christensen’s defense team made clear their client is responsible for Zhang’s death, but asked jurors to keep their eyes on the facts of the case when deciding their verdict.
“It’s Brendt’s fault,” federal defender Elisabeth Pollock said as Christensen sat with his eyes closed. “It’s nobody’s fault but his.”
But Pollock said the reason this trial has continued, despite that admission, is that the “government wants to take (Brendt’s) life.”
Zhang was last seen alive on June 9, 2017 getting into Christensen’s black Saturn Astra on the U. of I. campus after she missed a bus to an appointment. The two did not previously know each other and her remains have never been found.
But FBI investigators testified they found her blood and DNA inside Christensen’s Champaign apartment, where he raped, beat and decapitated her, according to a statement he made to his then-girlfriend Terra Bullis as they attended a memorial vigil for Zhang.
Pollock disputed aspects of that statement, which was played for jurors multiple times throughout the trial. She said Zhang’s DNA and blood were only found inside Christensen’s bedroom, not the bathroom where he claimed he had actually beaten and killed her.
She also took issue with Christensen’s claim to Bullis that he had previously killed 12 other women, stating the FBI has found no corroborating evidence to back up those claims.
Pollock said Christensen had lost control of his marriage, his academic goals and his alcohol abuse leading up to the killing. Indeed, his wife was considering divorce and dating another man, while Christensen himself had abandoned his hopes of earning a Ph.D. from the university.
He then entered a relationship with Bullis, who introduced him to bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism, or BDSM, which established a “link between sex and violence” in his head, Pollock said.
Pollock claimed she wasn’t making excuses for Christensen’s actions, but trying to paint for jurors a better picture of his mental state in the weeks and months surrounding Zhang’s death.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller spent more than an hour detailing the prosecution’s case in his own closing statements, saying the government had “easily” met its burden of proof to convict Christensen.
“He kidnapped her. He murdered her. And he cut her up,” Miller told jurors, repeating similar remarks he made during his opening statements. “Has the government proven these crimes beyond a reasonable doubt? The unquestionable answer is yes.”
His marital and alcohol issues may have been present, Miller said, but they didn’t “put these dark thoughts” in Christensen’s head. Instead, Christensen had become infatuated with serial killers like Ted Bundy and researched for months how to craft and carry out an abduction and murder, according to Miller.
“This was always about murder,” he told the jury. “This was not an impulsive act.”