PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — As a federal prosecutor on Wednesday shared with jurors grisly details of how authorities claim a former University of Illinois doctoral student kidnapped a visiting scholar from China, then beat her to death with a baseball bat, defense attorneys intent on sparing their client a possible death penalty offered an exceptional claim: He did it.
Opening statements began in the death-penalty trial of Brendt Christensen, a case which is being closely watched in China and by Chinese students across the U.S. Christensen is accused of posing as an undercover officer to lure 26-year-old Yingying Zhang into his car on June 9, 2017, as she headed to sign a lease off campus.
Christensen, who is over 6-foot, took Zhang to his apartment where he raped, choked and stabbed her in his bedroom, as the 5-foot-4 Zhang tried to fight him off, prosecutor Eugene Miller said in his opening statement to jurors Wednesday. Christensen then dragged Zhang into his bathroom, and pummeled her in the head with the bat before decapitating her, Miller said.
With Zhang’s father, a part-time trailer-truck driver from China, sitting just a few feet away on a courtroom bench, Miller also revealed for the first time that Christensen was captured on an FBI wiretap bragging that Zhang had been his 13th victim. But the prosecutor didn’t offer additional details, nor did he say if authorities believed him. Miller appeared to broach the issue in order to demonstrate Christensen’s quest to be known as a serial killer.
It was not immediately clear if authorities were investigating Christensen’s alleged claim. Prosecutors have said they won’t comment on the trial while it’s ongoing.
Christiansen became obsessed with serial killers in the months before for he kidnapped Zhang, Miller said, adding that Christensen was engrossed by the novel “American Psycho” and was intent on slaying someone in order to fulfill a goal of infamy that he’d set for himself. Zhang, who had only been in Illinois for two months in what was her first experience living outside China, aspired to become a professor in her home country to help her working-class parents.
“While Yingying was on campus pursuing her dreams, he was on campus pursuing something dark — something evil,” Miller said, standing at a podium in front of jurors.
The defense’s statements
When he first stepped up to the podium Christensen’s lawyer, George Tesseff, told jurors he would begin his remarks with what he realized was an unusual admission for an attorney about his client: “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang,” he said.
Without explaining in detail, Tesseff said Christensen was responsible because he “is on trial for his life,” alluding to the possibility of a death sentence.
While the lawyer’s admission was extraordinary it didn’t necessarily contradict what the defense has said previously. While Christensen pleaded not guilty, the defense never argued law enforcement had the wrong man. The admission in court Wednesday was a signal that their sole objective was — not to win a not-guilty verdict — but to persuade jurors not to vote to sentence Christensen to death.
Tesseff laid the groundwork in his opening statement, saying defense attorneys take issue with prosecutors’ explanation of “how and why” Christensen did what he did. Tesseff portrayed Christensen’s life as being in turmoil leading up to Zhang’s disappearance, saying marital and drinking problems only made matters worse. In his first few semesters as a doctoral student, Christensen was making straight As, but by late 2016 was getting straight Fs in all his classes.
Christensen appeared to bow and shake his head slightly when his lawyer spoke of Christensen’s life spinning out of control in 2016.
Tesseff told jurors they would see video of Christensen seeking help from U of I mental-health counselors for homicidal and suicidal thoughts.