The jury that found Brendt Christensen guilty in the kidnapping and slaying of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang will reconvene Monday to start the process of deciding whether he should be put to death for his crime.
Christensen's case is a rare one in a state that abolished capital punishment in 2011 and put a moratorium on the practice 11 years before that. The ban does not apply to federal court -- Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in 2015 in a federal trial in Massachusetts, which has also abolished the death penalty.
It's been more than 13 years since someone was sentenced to death in a federal courtroom in Illinois. In 2006, a judge affirmed a jury's sentence of death for Dr. Ronald Mikos, who was convicted of killing a former patient slated to testify against him in a Medicare fraud trial. He remains on death row in the maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
"There are no greater stakes in the criminal justice system, so the emotions tend to ride high," said Jeffrey Cramer, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Mikos.
In the penalty phase of the Christensen case, prosecutors will present aggravating factors to the crime, while the defense will present mitigating factors and are likely to call on witnesses to make their case. The mitigating factors can be fairly broad -- defense attorneys could draw on mental health, childhood abuse, personal history or the defendant reforming himself, Cramer said.
It's then up to the jury to weigh all of the factors and decide whether Christensen should live or die.
"You can't even compare it to a normal sentencing hearing. It's a very unique process," Cramer said. "People may have experience sitting on a jury, but there are only a handful of people who have had the experience of dealing with a death penalty case in Illinois."
A 66-item exhibit list filed by defense attorneys prior to the sentencing phase includes Christensen family home videos, family history, medical records, inmate files, educational and financial records.
Prosecutors submitted an exhibit list that includes videos of the Zhang family home, Zhang singing and video of her friends. The prosecution's list of exhibits also includes recorded phone calls Christensen made from jail, records from his accounts on multiple online dating platforms and photographs of items seized from Christensen while he's been in jail.
For Christensen to receive a death sentence, the jury must be unanimous in its decision. The judge can disagree with the jury, though in the relatively small pool of federal death penalty cases to draw on, judges have agreed with jury decisions, Cramer said.
But "the judge always has the final rule, always the final decision," Cramer said.
The jury found Christensen, 30, a former University of Illinois doctoral student, guilty of all three counts against him -- kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of lying to federal authorities -- last month after less than two hours of deliberations.
The swift verdict followed eight days of testimony and the defense team's admission during opening statements that Christensen killed Zhang.
During the trial, prosecutors told the jury that Christensen drove up to Zhang at a bus stop on June 9, 2017, in the Champaign-Urbana campus area, as she was on her way to look at a new apartment. He took her back to his apartment, sexually assaulted her, choked her, beat her with a baseball bat and decapitated her, prosecutors said.
Jurors heard recordings from 2017 of Christensen speaking in graphic detail to his then-girlfriend, Terra Bullis, who was cooperating with the FBI and wearing a wire to record him as law enforcement zeroed in on him as the suspect in Zhang's disappearance.
Christensen told Bullis that Zhang was his 13th victim, a detail his defense attorneys sought to discount during the guilt phase of the trial. Subsequent investigation has not turned up evidence linking Christensen to other victims, an FBI agent testified.
Zhang's body has not been recovered. Her family has pleaded for her remains to be recovered and returned to China "for a dignified burial where her spirit may be at rest and we may have peace," according to a court filing detailing plea negotiations, which was unsealed after the guilty verdict.
Zhang's family was in favor of a plea agreement in which Christensen would get life in prison if "identifiable bodily remains" were located and recovered, according to a court filing. But according to prosecutors, plea talks fell apart because it became clear in discussion with the defense that it was unlikely Zhang's remains would be recovered even with Christensen's cooperation.
An attorney for Zhang's family, Zhidong Wang, told reporters following the guilty verdict last month that Zhang's family has asked that prosecutors pursue the death penalty for Christensen. Zhang's parents, younger brother and boyfriend traveled from China for the trial.
In one recording played in court last month, Christensen told Bullis of Zhang: "No one will ever know where she is."
The penalty phase of the trial is slated to begin at 1 p.m. Monday in Peoria, where U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid had proceedings moved from Urbana.
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