Jury to consider death penalty in Chinese scholar killing

By MICHAEL TARM

The Associated Press

CHICAGO — A federal jury that convicted a former University of Illinois doctoral student of kidnapping, torturing and killing a young scholar from China now must decide if Brendt Christensen should be put to death.

While the state of Illinois, where she was killed, does not have the death penalty, the case was brought under federal law, which does allow capital punishment.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on June 24 after deliberating for less than 90 minutes, in part, because the 30-year-old Christensen's own lawyers told jurors from the outset that he did kill 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, saying their sole objective was to persuade jurors to spare his life.

The penalty phase, which is set to start Monday, is sure to be more contentious and more emotionally grueling. Here's a look out how it will work and how it could play out:

Q: HOW DOES IT WORK?

A: The penalty phase is a kind of mini-trial with openings, exhibits, testimony and closings. It's expected to last at least as long as the verdict phase, around a week and a half. Deliberations over whether Christensen should live or die are almost certain to last longer. If just one juror holds out against the death penalty, he'd be sentenced to life without parole.

Q: WHAT ABOUT EVIDENCE?

A: The rules of evidence are looser in the penalty phase. Hearsay, opinion and emotion aren't automatically prohibited. Zhang's parents, for instance, are expected to testify about how their daughter's death has devastated their own lives . They could talk about how she dreamed of becoming a crop-sciences professor.

Both parents have said they want death for Christensen. But jurors aren't supposed to vote for a death sentence out of sympathy for or to give comfort to the family.

Q: WHAT IS THE PRIMARY QUESTION JURORS MUST ANSWER?

A: They must assess whether aggravating factors presented by prosecutors in how Christensen killed Zhang and the impact her death has had on others "sufficiently outweigh the mitigating factors," the penalty-phase form says. If jurors decide the aggravating factors are greater, they should vote for execution. If they decide enough mitigating factors tip the scale the other way, they should opt for the life sentence.

Q: WHAT WILL PROSECUTORS SAY?

A: Jurors already heard during the verdict phase how Christensen carried Zhang into his apartment in a 6-foot duffle bag, raped, stabbed and choked her, then beat her to death with a bat and decapitated her.

Prosecutors will emphasize Christensen's meticulous pre-planning and how he seemed proud of what he'd done.

Q: WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?

A: The defense has the bigger challenge given the grisly details jurors know from the verdict phase.

Defense lawyers are expected to tell jurors 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.

Q: DO WE KNOW WHERE JURORS STAND ON THE DEATH PENALTY?

A: Those who categorically oppose capital punishment or believe it should be imposed on someone convicted of killing without exception can't serve as jurors in federal death-penalty trials and were weeded out in jury selection. While jurors are supposed to strictly adhere to criteria laid out on the penalty phase form, many are likely to be hesitant about casting votes that could result in someone being put to death.

Q: WILL CHRISTENSEN SPEAK?

A: He could. But how is a point of disagreement. The defense wants Christensen to be able to make a statement, perhaps to apologize to Zhang's family. Prosecutors said he should only be able to speak from the witness stand and that prosecutors should be able to cross-examine him.

He may also want to reveal what he did with Zhang's remains, which have never been found. That could be risky. He is heard on secret FBI recordings telling his girlfriend Zhang's remains were "gone forever." Far from crediting him for revealing how he disposed of the body, jurors could end up being more repelled.

Q: WHAT ABOUT APPEALS?

A: Just because someone is sentenced to death in the federal system, doesn't necessarily mean the person will die — at least not anytime soon. Appeals can delay executions by decades.

Since the reinstatement of the federal death penalty in 1988, 78 people were sentenced to death — but only three have actually been put to death, according to the Death Penalty Information Center data to 2018.

Federal executions are by lethal injection.