PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Jurors quickly reached a guilty verdict Monday in the federal death-penalty trial of a former University of Illinois doctoral student accused of killing a visiting scholar from China.
It took jurors less than 90 minutes to convict 29-year-old Brendt Christensen of raping and killing 26-year-old Yingying Zhang in 2017 at the university’s flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign.
Prosecutor Eugene Miller pointed at Christensen earlier Monday during closing arguments.
“The tragic truth is Yingying is gone,” Miller told jurors as a photo of a smiling Zhang was displayed on a courtroom monitor. “There is only one person responsible — and he sits right there.”
An attorney for Christensen repeated what the defense said in openings, that their client killed Zhang. But Elisabeth Pollock said her client was “someone who lost control … who battled these dark thoughts.”
When she added, “We are here because the government wants to take his life,” the prosecution objected and Judge James Shadid stopped her. He told jurors they were not yet in the penalty phase of the trial and the only issue now was the defendant’s guilt or innocence.
Miller referred to the defense strategy of admitting Christensen killed Zhang, saying he was as surprised as anyone by the admission from the outset of the trial. He asked the question many jurors were likely asking themselves: Why sit through eight full days of evidence if defense attorneys say their client did it?
Because, Miller explained, “lawyers’ statements aren’t evidence” and the burden remained on prosecutors to prove Christensen did what they alleged he did.
Miller also told jurors that Christensen abducted a stranger from a street near campus, someone he didn’t view as human.
“She was an object for him to fulfill his dark desire — to kill for the sake of killing,” he said.
Christensen twisted and pulled at a rubber band at a nearby defense table in a blue dress shirt and beard. Zhang’s father sat on a front bench several feet away, listening to a Chinese interpretation of proceedings through a headset.