Insight into what jury must consider

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PEORIA COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — The jury may only have two sentencing options, but making a decision isn’t as simple as just picking one. They have a whole checklist of items to consider and it could take them hours to get through. It’s what’s called a “weighing” process.

Jury instructions tell them how they have to proceed. Federal prosecutors presented aggravating factors they argue warrant a death sentence while the defense presented mitigating factors claiming Christensen deserves life in prison instead.

Three aggravating factors are laid out in US law. Prosecutors want the jury to find:

  • Yingying Zhang’s death happened while Christensen was committing another crime (in this case, kidnapping)
  • It was done in a heinous, cruel or depraved manner
  • There was substantial planning and premeditation

Five more aggravating factors prosecutors raise aren’t named in the law, but the jury will still consider them:

  • Zhang’s vulnerability as a victim
  • Her family’s victim impact testimony
  • Christensen’s future dangerousness
  • His lack of remorse
  • His obstruction of justice by lying to the FBI and cleaning up evidence of his crime

The prosecution wants the jury to believe those aggravating factors outweigh all the defense’s mitigating factors and there are 49 of them.

They include:

  • Christensen’s lack of criminal history
  • His and his family’s struggles with alcoholism and mental illness
  • His family’s love for him
  • He sought treatment and counseling
  • His good behavior in jail
  • His life is valuable

The jury has to decide which of those factors are true and how much weight each should be given, one-by-one. If they decide the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating ones, they sill have to be unanimous in voting for a death sentence. If there’s even just one hold-out, he will automatically get life in prison.

Court is called back into session briefly because the jury has questions. Members are confused about a couple things.

They ask whether the aggravating factor of Christensen’s “future dangerousness” applies only to a prison context or if he were to be released. The teams decide the answer is “in prison.”

Jurors also aren’t sure about when they tally the number of jurors influenced by each mitigating factor and when they take their weight into consideration. They’re referred back to the instructions.

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