Illinois man receives life sentence for murder of Chinese graduate student

Christensen (above) was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty by default.
Christensen (above) was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty by default.PHOTO: REUTERS
The victim's father, Zhang Ronggao (left), and mother, Ye Lifeng (second right), leave court on July 8, 2019.
The victim's father, Zhang Ronggao (left), and mother, Ye Lifeng (second right), leave court on July 8, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

PEORIA, Illinois (REUTERS) -An Illinois man described by prosecutors as obsessed with serial killers was sentenced to life in prison on Thursday (July 18) for the kidnapping and decapitation of a Chinese graduate student two years ago.

A US District Court jury in Peoria, Illinois found Brendt Christensen, 29, guilty last month of all charges in the murder of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

On Thursday, the same jury of five women and seven men told the judge that they were unable to unanimously decide between life in prison or the death penalty.

Christensen was then sentenced to life imprisonment by default.

Christensen looked down with his eyes closed, smiled and sighed when US District Judge James Shadid read the decision.

Christensen's mother was hugged by a member of his legal team in the courtroom.

Christensen hugged and thanked his lawyers.

Shadid admonished Christensen for not addressing Zhang's family when he gave him the opportunity during a brief hearing later when he formally sentenced him.

"The mercy extended to you by this jury is a testament to their humanity, not your character," Shadid said.

While the state of Illinois has outlawed capital punishment, it is an option in federal cases tried under US kidnapping laws.

During closing arguments in the sentencing phase of the trial on Wednesday, prosecutors described how Christensen, a one-time masters student at the university, took Zhang to his apartment, where she fought for her life as he bludgeoned her with a baseball bat, raped her and stabbed her in the neck before cutting off her head.

"He will die in prison as he should for these unthinkable acts," US Attorney for the Central District of Illinois John Milhiser said during a news conference.

Christensen's lawyers acknowledged throughout the trial and in their closing arguments that their client killed Zhang, but asked the jury to consider that he had struggled with substance abuse and mental illness.

"It's the lesser of two evils," Christensen's father Michael said of the sentence.

Zhang's parents and fiance sat through the five-week trial in Peoria, about 265km southwest of Chicago.

Her family said in a statement that they disagreed with the sentence.

"We accept that he will spend the rest of his life in prison, which still reflects our loss in a meaningful way," the statement said.

Zhang was reported missing on June 9, 2017, two months after coming from southeastern China to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university. Her remains have never been found but prosecutors said her DNA was matched to blood later found in three spots inside Christensen's bedroom.

"If you have any humanity left in your soul, please help us end our torment," the Zhang family statement said, pleading for Christensen to disclose where he left her body.

Investigators were led to Christensen through surveillance video footage captured in Urbana, 210km south of Chicago, that showed Zhang getting into a black car that was later traced to him.

Earlier in the trial, prosecutors characterised Christensen as having a fascination with serial killers. These included Ted Bundy, who murdered dozens of women during the 1970s and was put to death in 1989.

Details of the crime, including Zhang's decapitation, were revealed by Christensen in conversations with a girlfriend secretly recorded for FBI agents investigating the case before his arrest, according to trial testimony.