PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Jurors who will decide if a former University of Illinois doctoral student should be executed for the kidnapping and brutal slaying of a Chinese scholar are hearing about the victim from her friends and family — and from the victim herself.
Just weeks after a federal jury found Brendt Christensen guilty of all the charges against him, the penalty phase of his trial began Monday. The same jury that convicted Christensen will be asked to choose if Christensen should be sentenced to death or allowed to live out his life in prison.
After weeks of brutal testimony describing how Yingying Zhang was abducted, stuffed into a duffel bag and taken to a residence where prosecutors said Christensen raped her, beat her to death with a baseball bat and decapitated her, Monday was primarily about the life of the woman whose body has never been found .
“She’s the best girl I’ve ever met,” Xiaolin Hou said of the 26-year-old Zhang, whom he planned to marry.
Hou told of how Zhang loved to sing and how the loneliness of living in central Illinois — so far from her home in China — made her long for her guitar.
The jurors heard from Zhang herself, when prosecutors played a two-minute video featuring Zhang performing the Avril Lavigne song, “Complicated,” as lead singer with her grad school band at Peking University.
Jurors also watched videos made by friends and family of Zhang, translated from Chinese. They described the warmhearted young woman. One friend said Zhang appeared so excited to learn of her pregnancy and spoke about one day becoming a mother herself.
On Tuesday, jurors are expected to learn more about Zhang, this time from her brother and father.
The penalty phase of the trial is expected to last several days.
Though it remains to be seen if Christensen will take the witness stand, in opening statements Monday the defense laid out its reasoning as to why Christensen should not be executed.
Reminding jurors that Christensen will die in prison, surrounded by strangers, court-appointed attorney Julie Brain, portrayed Christensen as a man who struggled for years with mental health issues and had for months before he killed Zhang tried to get help in dealing with his homicidal fantasies.
“What happened next was a four-year battle between Brendt and his demons that little by little, he lost,” Brendt told the jury.