PEORIA – Jurors began deliberating but didn't reach a decision Wednesday on whether a former University of Illinois doctoral student should be put to death for the brutal slaying of a scholar from China he abducted at a bus stop.
Brent Christensen's attorney, Elisabeth Pollock, teared up earlier in the day during closing arguments in the penalty phase in U.S. District Court in Peoria, at one point walking behind her 30-year-old client and putting her hands on his shoulders.
"He is a whole person," she said, looking across the room at jurors. "He is not just the worst thing he ever did."
Pollock sought to humanize Christensen, telling jurors how he once bought a stuffed toy his sister wanted using his allowance money.
Prosecutors reminded jurors of a secret FBI recording in which Christensen laughed as he described luring 26-year-old Yingying Zhang into his car as she was running late to sign an apartment lease in 2017. He raped, choked and stabbed her as she fought back, then beat her to death with a bat and cut off her head. Her body was never found.
"Evil does exist," prosecutor Eugene Miller told jurors. "What the defendant did was evil."
All 12 jurors must agree to impose the death penalty. If even one opposes execution, the 30-year-old would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Pollock told told jurors that Christensen did kill Zhang, something the defense admitted at the outset of his trial last month. She said Christensen – a native of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, whose undergraduate degree was in physics and math – would die in prison whether by natural causes or lethal injection.
"He is leaving prison in a casket. The only question is when," she said.
The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen at the trial last month.
Deliberations during the current penalty stage have already lasted longer and could potentially take days, with a complicated series of difficult questions jurors must answer, including whether Christensen displayed unique cruelty in how he killed Zhang or whether he exhibited redeeming qualities in his life.
Jurors began deliberating Wednesday afternoon and within just a few hours sent a note to the judge asking about the order they should consider those factors. Judge James Shadid sent a note back saying they should consult the written instructions. After three hours, the judge excused jurors for the day. They'll return Thursday morning.
In his closing, prosecutor James Nelson at one point held up the bat Christensen used to kill Zhang. He told jurors the slaying of Zhang, who Christensen didn't know, was part of the fulfillment of Christensen's fantasy to become infamous as a killer.
"The defendant killed Yingying for sport," he said, adding that death was the only just punishment for a crime so "horrific."
Prosecutors said Christensen likely forced the 5-foot-4 Zhang into a 6-foot-long duffel bag to carry her up to his apartment in Urbana, Champaign's sister city 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
Nelson reminded jurors of testimony about how Christensen was in awe at how Zhang resisted. He thought she was dead at one point and stabbed her in the neck, only for her to grab the knife, Nelson said. "She just wouldn't die," Christensen was recorded saying. He decapitated Zhang to ensure she was dead.
Raising his voice and pointing at Christensen at the defense table, Nelson said: "She didn't want that man to be the last man she saw on earth. ... He erased her from this earth."
Jurors shouldn't be swayed by defense photographs and videos showing Christensen as an outwardly sweet, kind child, Nelson added.
"Sometimes innocent children grow up to be cruel," he said.
Christensen never publicly revealed what he did with Zhang's remains. He declined to testify during the penalty phase, when he could have explained how he disposed of the body.
But his lawyer, Pollock, did apologize on his behalf, at one point saying "I'm sorry" to Zhang's father on a front bench.
Christensen's father and mother were also in court, several times shedding tears as lawyers spoke of their son.
The defense listed 49 mitigating factors they say should weigh in favor of a life prison sentence, including that he had no prior criminal record, sought treatment for homicidal fantasies before killing Zhang and that his parents would suffer if he's put to death.
Prosecutors say the aggravating factors include that Christensen killed Zhang in a "heinous, cruel and depraved" manner, that he took advantage of her small stature to kill her and that the killing devastated her family.
Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but Christensen was prosecuted under federal law, which allows for it. If he is sentenced to death, a long appeals process is expected before he would be executed by lethal injection in Indiana.
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