Brendt Christensen, who was found guilty by a US jury of kidnapping and killing Chinese visiting scholar Zhang Yingying in 2017, appeared Monday at a federal courthouse in Peoria, Illinois, for his sentence.
On Monday afternoon, US Department of Justice attorney James Nelson gave the opening statement for the prosecution, starting with the last line from Zhang’s diary: “Life is too short to be ordinary.”
“She had no way of knowing how short her life would be,” Nelson said. “The only way you know Yingying Zhang is her death.”
Describing Zhang’s life, he said: “Yingying was far more than just an international scholar. She was a devoted and loving daughter … She was the hope of her family.”
Nelson said the family is still in deep sorrow, mentioning that her father has difficulty looking at photos of her.
Yingying had a beautiful voice and loved to sing, “but on June 9, 2017, that beautiful voice fell silent,” Nelson said.
Calling for death penalty, Nelson said it was “not an ordinary crime. It was cold, calculated, cruel and months in the making.”
Christensen’s attorney Julie Brain gave the opening for the defense, saying Christensen “will die in prison, alone, with strangers.”
She described Christensen as someone who struggled his whole life with mental health issues — night terrors, walking in his sleep, debilitating migraines.
Brain said Christensen sought mental health treatment, but didn’t get the help he needed.
While she said the crime is his fault, “this is not a case that deserves the death penalty.”
Brain asked jurors to make a moral decision, to keep an open mind, and to sentence him to life in prison without the possibility of release.
Following the opening statements from both sides, the prosecutors summoned three Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) language specialists and Hou Xiaolin, Zhang’s boyfriend to testify.
During Hou’s testimony, the prosecutors played video recordings of four roommates and friends in China talking about Zhang in their eyes.
“Diligent, filial, smiling, independent, motivated, optimistic, and helpful” are the common words they used to describe her. Some just couldn’t help crying during the talk.
Christensen gazed at the screen when the videos were played, emotionless.
In the next two weeks, dozens of witnesses will testify, including Zhang’s father and brother, before the 12-person jury decides between death penalty or life imprisonment.
Zhang’s mother has been approved to testify via a video given the emotionally difficulty of being present in court.
Early Monday morning, Judge James Shadid refused the motion of excluding the video testimony of Zhang’s friends and roommates raised by the defense.
Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC), attended the sentencing trial on Monday.
“We are so sad,” she told Xinhua in an interview. “As a parent myself … I can’t imagine going through a loss like this in such a horrible, senseless, terrible way.”
“It’s partly our efforts to ensure that we have a very welcoming community and that we let Chinese students know that we’re delighted and very proud to have them as part of our community,” Kaler said.
Kaler hopes Zhang’s family receives justice.
Zhang Yingying, a 26-year-old Chinese scholar, went missing on June 9, 2017, after getting into a black Saturn Astra about five blocks away from where she got off a bus on her way to an apartment complex to sign a lease.
Christensen was arrested on June 30, 2017, after being caught on tape pointing out people he described as “ideal victims” during a vigil in Zhang’s honor.