PEORIA, Ill. — As federal prosecutors on Wednesday shared with jurors grisly details of how they say a former University of Illinois doctoral student kidnapped a visiting scholar from China, then brutally beat and killed her, defense attorneys intent on sparing their client a possible death penalty offered an exceptional claim: He did it.
Opening statements began in the federal death penalty trial of Brendt Christensen, a case that is being closely watched by Chinese students across the U.S. Christensen is accused of luring 26-year-old Yingying Zhang into his car in June 2017 as she headed to sign a lease off campus.
Prosecutors told jurors Wednesday that Christensen took Zhang to his apartment where he raped, choked and stabbed her in his bedroom. They said Christensen later pummeled her in the head with a baseball bat in his bathroom before decapitating her.
With Yingying Zhang’s father sitting just a few feet away on a courtroom bench, prosecutor Eugene Miller also revealed for the first time that Brendt Christensen was captured on an FBI wiretap bragging that Zhang had been his 13th victim. But the prosecutor didn’t say if authorities believed him.
Miller told jurors that Christiansen became obsessed with serial killers in the months before for he kidnapped the 26-year-old Zhang, setting a goal of infamy for himself by slaying someone. Zhang, who had been at the university for only two months, aspired to become a professor in her home country.
“While Yingying was on campus pursuing her dreams, he was on campus pursuing something dark — something evil,” Miller said, standing at a podium in front of jurors.
A federal judge moved the trial to Peoria in central Illinois after Christensen’s lawyers said pretrial publicity would have made it impossible for the 29-year-old former physics student to get a fair trial in the Champaign area, where the 45,000-student university is located. The university has more than 5,000 Chinese students, among the largest such enrollments in the nation.
Prosecutors allege Christensen, posing as an undercover policeman and taking advantage of Yingying Zhang’s small stature and lack of English fluency, lured the 26-year-old into his car in June 9, 2017. She had just missed a bus on her way to sign an apartment lease off campus in Champaign’s sister city Urbana, 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
Christensen told Zhang to get into his car because he had questions for her, an attempt he’d made earlier in the day with another woman, Miller said.
Later, the tall, muscled Christensen bound the 5-foot-4 Zhang and got her into his apartment, where, Miller said, he raped Zhang in his bedroom and began stabbing her, blood splattering around the room. Zhang fought back as Christensen began trying to choke Zhang, Miller told jurors, citing a statement Christensen allegedly made to others.
Miller said Christensen then dragged Zhang into the bathroom where he picked up a baseball bat and struck her in the head as hard as he could, “splitting her head open.” Christensen cut off her head and disposed of her body, which has never been found, the prosecutor told jurors.
When Christensen’s lawyer, George Tesseff, addressed the jury, he said he would start with what he realized was an unusual admission for a defense attorney: His client did it.
“Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang,” he said.
Without explaining in detail, Tesseff said Christensen was responsible because he “is on trial for his life,” alluding to the possibility of a death sentence.
While the defense agreed Christensen kidnapped and killed Zhang, Tesseff said they took issue with prosecutors’ explanation of “how and why.” Tesseff portrayed Christensen’s life as being in turmoil leading up to Zhang’s disappearance, saying he was drinking heavily at the time.
He also mentioned that statement Christensen made about killing others, saying his client was clearly in a drunken stupor at the time and that there is no evidence he ever killed anyone else, including 12 people other than Zhang.
Prosecutors were expected to call their first witnesses after opening statements.
The final selection of 12 jurors and six alternates happened Tuesday. Those who categorically oppose capital punishment or believe it should be imposed on someone convicted of killing without expectation can’t serve as jurors in federal death-penalty trials, and weeding them out extended jury selection to more than a week.
If Christensen is convicted, there will then be a death-penalty phase where jurors would decide if Christensen should be executed.
The federal death-penalty case is the first in Illinois since the state struck capital punishment from its books on grounds death-penalty processes were too error-prone. Some Illinois anti-death penalty activists criticized what they said was the federal government’s imposition of a death-penalty case on a non-death penalty state.
The disappearance of Zhang, the daughter of working-class parents in China who aspired to become a professor, prompted a massive search. Zhang’s parents travelled from China to join the search.
Christensen was arrested on June 30, 2017, his birthday, after his girlfriend wore a wire for the FBI in a bid to capture incriminating statements by Christensen. He later pleaded not guilty to kidnapping resulting in death. The girlfriend is expected to be the government’s star witness.
Zhang’s body was never found and one challenge for prosecutors is to prove to jurors she is dead. That could include evidence of her blood in Christensen’s apartment and a cadaver-sniffing dog that indicated a dead body had been there.
Zhang’s parents, her brother and boyfriend are in Illinois for the trial. They watched part of the jury selection process in Peoria and some days watching via a closed-circuit TV at a federal courthouse in Urbana.
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