PEORIA COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — After a day-and-a-half of deliberations, Brendt Christensen’s fate is decided. He will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Christensen kidnapped and killed UI scholar Yingying Zhang in June 2017. Thursday, a jury decided against sentencing him to death. The jury couldn’t come to a unanimous decision. They took a day-and-a-half to make their choice and still couldn’t all agree.
It means he gets life in prison by default, ultimately dealing a blow to federal prosecutors who said the death penalty was the only way for the Zhang family to get justice. The decision is a victory for Christensen’s defense team.
They argued he’s not one of the “worst of the worst” criminals because he tried to get mental health treatment and, save for his actions over a couple months in 2017, has lived a relatively normal life.
Prosecutors hoped the jury would sympathize more with their argument about the several aggravating factors in this case such as the defendant’s lack of remorse, the heinous nature of his crimes and his obstruction of justice.
Ultimately, the jury was apparently swayed enough by his family’s testimony to consider his humanity as well. Now, life in a federal prison means he won’t ever be eligible for release. There’s no such thing as parole in this case. So, as one of his attorneys put it, he will be leaving prison in a coffin.
The jury arrived at its decision despite being somewhat confused about the judge’s instructions. Members asked the judge several questions during the course of deliberations wanting to clarify how to interpret things like Christensen’s possible future dangerousness while in prison and what their responses to some of their considerations will be used for.
Steve Beckett, the Zhang family’s attorney and liaison had this to say:
The family is devastated, especially the mother, Lifeng Ye. This is the second worst feeling for the family since they found out that their daughter had been kidnapped and killed.”
The judge sentences Christensen to life plus five years for lying to the FBI and $250,000 for each count. He declines to say anything for himself and is emotionless as the judge reads the sentence. “The mercy extended to you by this jury is a testament to their humanity, not your character.” The judge even reams Christensen for not saying a simple “I’m sorry.”