Lawyers for a former University of Illinois doctoral student who faces a possible death sentence for kidnapping and killing a visiting scholar from China say their client offered after his arrest to plead guilty and divulge where her remains were in exchange for a life sentence.
The revelation came in a late Tuesday filing, a day after jurors convicted 29-year-old Brendt Christensen in the death of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang. Prosecutors said Christensen abducted her at a bus stop on June 9, 2017, then raped, tortured and killed her in his apartment in Urbana, 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
A statement from Zhang's family, released by their Chicago-based lawyer, Zhidong Wang, said they were made aware of the offer at the time and told prosecutors they wanted "truthful" information from Christensen that would allow them to find the remains and bring them home to China. But they "were leery" of the offer because "he had lied so many times in the past."
"There was no promise that Yingying's remains would be discovered," the statement said.
The defense filing doesn't say whether prosecutors seriously considered withdrawing the death penalty option. The timetable also isn't clear: The defense says Christensen made the offer "within six months" of his June 30, 2017, arrest; prosecutors had raised the possibility of seeking the death penalty by November 2017 and announced in January 2018 that they would seek it.
Law enforcement spent weeks searching for Zhang's body, including at a mine 30 minutes south of the campus in nearby Champaign, but her body was never found.
Legal observers had expected Christensen to use the whereabouts of Zhang's remains as a bargaining chip to get federal prosecutors to abandon any push for the death penalty. But there was no word he tried that until now.
The 17-page filing only briefly mentions the offer as part of a request for the judge to bar statements at an upcoming death-penalty phase that suggest Christensen refused to help locate Zhang's remains. That phase begins July 8 and could last weeks, after which the same jurors will decide whether Christensen should be put to death.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in central Illinois, Sharon Paul, declined any comment on the defense filing. Prosecutors have said they won't comment on any aspect of the trial until proceedings are over.
Zhang's relatives said in the Wednesday statement that they "respect the decisions that have been made" by prosecutors.
In a conversation secretly recorded for the FBI by Christensen's girlfriend and played for jurors at the verdict stage of the trial, Christensen graphically detailed how he raped, choked and stabbed Zhang, then beat her to death with a baseball bat and decapitated her.
But he would never tell anyone, including her, how he disposed of the body, he said, speaking one day before his arrest.
"She's never going to be found," he is heard saying. "She's gone forever."
The family statement says "nothing has ever stopped the Defendant from pleading guilty" and sparing the family the anguish of a trial.
"Yet," it says, "the family sat through a trial where the horrible details of Yingying's death have been publicly disclosed."