Jurors who will decide whether a former University of Illinois doctoral student should live or die for kidnapping, torturing and killing a scholar visiting from China will hear from the victim's mother and several of her friends, a judge announced on Monday.
Just before the scheduled penalty phase of Brendt Christensen's federal trial, The (Champaign) News-Gazette reported that U.S. District Judge James Shadid said he would allow jurors to watch a video that prosecutors said Yingying Zhang's mother recorded on Saturday, and seven videos in which Yingying Zhang's friends talk about how the 2017 death of the 26-year-old scholar affected their lives. Shadid also agreed to allow the jurors watch a video of Zhang singing.
The beginning of the penalty phase of Christensen's trial comes days after the same jury found Christensen guilty . During the current hearing, Christensen's attorneys — who acknowledged at the beginning of the trial that Christensen was guilty — will argue that their client's life should be spared. They are expected to tell jurors that Christensen knew his homicidal fantasies months before he killed Zhang weren't right and sought help from U of I mental health counselors. They have alleged the school didn't do enough to help.
But prosecutors have already during trial told jurors that Christensen in June 2017 kidnapped Zhang from a bus stop, took her into his apartment in a duffel bag where he raped, stabbed and choked her before beating her to death with a baseball bat. They could use that information to show Christensen's meticulous planning of the crime and how he even seemed to express pride in what he had done to argue for the death penalty — something Zhang's family members already have said they support.
On Monday, the judge also said he would allow jurors to hear a recording of a phone call that Christensen made from jail. Prosecutors told the judge Monday that Christensen asserts his innocence — something The (Champaign) News-Gazette reports that prosecutors want jurors to hear because they believe it shows Christensen's lack of remorse.
The 30-year-old Christensen could testify during the hearing that is expected to last several days. If he does, one big question is whether he will reveal what he did with Zhang's body, which has never been found, as part of an effort to convince jurors to spare his life and sentence him instead to life in prison without the possibility of parole.