PEORIA, Illinois—A former University of Illinois doctoral student was spared the death penalty Thursday and sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and killing a 26-year-old scholar from China. Her parents, disappointed he was not sentenced to death, publicly begged for the killer to reveal where her remains are so they can be returned home.
Jurors deliberated about eight hours over two days before announcing they were deadlocked on whether 30-year-old Brendt Christensen should be put to death for killing Yingying Zhang in 2017 as part of a homicidal fantasy, automatically resulting in a sentence of life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
The federal trial judge, James Shadid, castigated Christensen in court later Thursday as he formally sentenced him, telling him his “inexplicable act of violence has taken its toll on so many, first and foremost the Zhang family.”
“The Zhang family … must live with the thought that Yingying was ripped away from them by a total stranger, thousands of miles away, fulfilling his self-absorbed and selfish fantasies,” he told Christensen.
The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen last month for abducting Zhang from a bus stop, then raping, choking, and stabbing her before beating her to death and decapitating her. Prosecutors called for the death penalty , which the Zhang family also supported, but a jury decision on that had to be unanimous.
Christensen, who has never revealed what he did with Zhang’s remains, shut his eyes in obvious relief and looked back smiling at his mother when he heard that his life would be spared. He also hugged his lawyers.
Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but Christensen was charged under federal law, which allows for capital punishment.
Speaking through an interpreter outside court later, her father, Ronggao Zhang, appealed to Christensen to reveal where her body is so that the family can take her remains back to China.
“If you have any humanity left in your soul, please end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home,” he said.
The U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois, John Milhiser, said that efforts to find Zhang’s remains would continue. As he spoke, Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye, sobbed.
When the judge asked Christensen if he wanted to make a statement at the formal sentencing later Thursday, Christensen responded politely, “No, thank you.”
Minutes later, Shadid blasted him for not taking the opportunity to make a statement for the first time publicly and express remorse, especially when he no longer had anything to lose.
“You could have said whatever you wanted to say for as little or as long as you wished,” the judge said sternly. “And yet today, 769 days after you took Yingying’s life, you could not muster a simple ‘I’m sorry.'”
As the judge chided him, Christensen sat stoned-faced, looking straight ahead and not at the judge.
Shadid said he hoped Christensen might one day consider an apology before he dies “lonely” and “isolated” in prison.
“Maybe, just maybe,” the judge said, “the moment will strike you to pick up paper and pen and write, ‘I’m sorry,’ to Mr. and Mrs. Zhang.”
Getting 12 jurors to agree on imposing the ultimate punishment can be difficult.
Defense lawyer Elisabeth Pollock geared her remarks in closings Wednesday toward convincing at least one of the 12 jurors to hold out against execution, urging each not to be swayed by a majority that may support execution.
She also sought to humanize Christensen, telling jurors how he once bought a stuffed toy his sister wanted using his allowance money. She teared up as she walked behind Christensen, put her hands on his shoulders and said, “He is not just the worst thing he ever did.”
Prosecutor James Nelson said during his closing that Christensen is heard laughing as he described in a secret FBI recording how he killed Zhang. “Pride was dripping from his voice” about what he’d done, Nelson told jurors.
Another prosecutor, Eugene Miller, added: “What the defendant did was evil.”
Among the most poignant testimony during the penalty phase was from Zhang’s mother. She said Christensen dashed Zhang’s dreams, killing her months before she had planned to get married.
“My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress,” she said. “I really wanted to be a grandma.”
Christensen’s parents took the witness stand, too, and appealed to jurors to spare their son’s life. Both said they loved him unconditionally.
Christensen, a native of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, began his studies in Champaign at the university’s prestigious doctoral program in physics in 2013. Zhang, who had aspired to become a crop-sciences professor to help her working class family financially, had been in Illinois for just three months. It was her first time living outside China.