Brendt Christensen. [Photo/IC]
A former doctoral student has been spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison in Illinois for kidnapping and killing of a 26-year-old scholar from China.
Jurors deliberated for eight hours over two days at the court in Peoria before announcing they were deadlocked on whether 30-year-old Brendt Christensen should be put to death for killing Yingying Zhang.
Their decision means he will receive a sentence of life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
The jury took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen last month.
Prosecutors called for the death penalty, which Zhang’s family also supported, but a jury decision on that had to be unanimous.
People hold signs supporting University of Illinois visiting scholar Zhang Yingying outside of the US Courthouse in Urbana, Illinois, on July 3, 2017, before the bond hearing for Brendt Christensen. PHOTO/NEWSCOM
Christensen lowered his head and smiled at his mother when he heard that his life would be spared.
Zhang’s parents, who travelled from China to attend the trial, pleaded with Christensen to reveal what he did with their daughter’s remains so that they can be taken back to their home country. Prosecutors indicated in court filings that Christensen may have destroyed Zhang’s body.
Speaking through an interpreter, her father, Ronggao Zhang, said: “If you have any humanity left in your soul, please end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home.”
Among the most poignant testimony during the penalty phase was from Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye. She told jurors how the family was devastated by the loss of her beloved daughter, who had aspired to become a professor and to help her working class family financially.
“How am I supposed to carry on living?” she said in testimony by video. “I really don’t know how to carry on.”
She said Christensen dashed the dreams of Zhang, who was doing post-graduate research in agricultural science at the University of Illinois, and those of her family. Yingying was killed months before she had planned to get married.
“My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress,” Lifeng Ye said. “I really wanted to be a grandma.”
Christensen’s parents took the witness stand, too, and appealed to jurors to spare their son’s life. Both said they loved him unconditionally.
Michael Christensen said the thought of his son being executed was unbearable, prompting Brendt Christensen to break down crying in a rare display of emotion.
Ellen Williams, his mother, told jurors that Christensen’s crime was “horrible” and that she thinks about Zhang’s family “at least five times a day and how horrible this must be for them”. She said her son was extremely bright, kind and considerate.
Brendt Christensen was raised in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. He began his studies in Champaign at the University of Illinois’s prestigious doctoral program in physics in 2013.
Despite his academic achievements, Christensen had suffered mental health problems for years, the defence said, and had tried to get help in dealing with homicidal fantasies in the months before killing Zhang.