PEORIA, Ill. (WCIA) — Opening statements in Brendt Christensen’s murder trial began at 9 am, Wednesday.
Prosecutors say he kidnapped and killed Yingying Zhang in June 2017 and covered it up.
His defense attorneys, in their opening statement, say “Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang. He killed Yingying Zhang and nothing we say or do during this phase of the trial will be an attempt to sidestep or deny that.”
The defense case will hinge on mitigating circumstances including Christensen’s mental health. It will also call into question some of the things Christensen is heard saying on FBI recordings. They told the jury they’re trying to save Christensen’s life, because he could face the death penalty if he’s found guilty.
The defense seems to include Christensen himself is a victim; a victim of failed counselors in the mental health system, a man who had a lot of things going on in his life and was in a downward spiral, including alcohol abuse and a failed marriage. Christensen appeared to wipe tears from his eyes when his team brought up his divorce
U.S. Assistant Attorney Eugene Miller shared gruesome details of Zhang’s murder in his opening statement.
He said Christensen took Zhang to his apartment, raped her, tied her up, put her in the bathtub, hit her in the head with a baseball bat, stabbed her in the neck and cut her head off. He said Christensen was smart, but failed to get rid of all of the evidence.
A woman Christensen was dating during the course of his divorce is expected to testify.
Several UIPD officers testified Wednesday. Subjects included collecting DNA evidence from Christensen’s apartment and identifying the owner of a black Saturn Astra a with damaged hubcap seen on surveillance video.
The video shows Zhang getting into the Astra after it passes her a couple times and circles the block after she missed an MTD bus.
So far, the defense has only cross-examined one witness, Professor Kaiyu Guan. He was a government witness speaking about Zhang’s program and her coming to the United States.
Assistant Public Defender Elisabeth Pollock suggested a main reason Zhang was selected for her program was because she spoke English well. Court recessed for the day about 4 pm.
An FBI agent is scheduled to testify Thursday.
Court adjourned at 3:30 Wednesday and will pick back up Thursday morning. Judge Jim Shadid says they’re ahead of schedule.
Here is the list of nine witnesses who testified Wednesday:
Charles Hoskins, Jr: UIPD officer
- Took the first report Zhang was missing
- Started a search operation for her
Xiaolin Hou: Zhang’s boyfriend
- Met her in 2009, both attended Sunyat-Sen University in China, and graduated at the top of their class
- Last saw Zhang in April 2017
- Planned to marry her in October 2017
Randy Fouts, MTD Operations Supervisor:
- Explained comprehensive surveillance footage MTD has; showed bus with 9 camera angles
Kaiyu Guan, Associate UI Professor:
- Says Zhang was selected to be part of his program
- Says he contacted UIPD after Zhang didn’t answer her phone for several days, and made Missing posters
- Says he led a party of students and colleagues to distribute the posters throughout Champaign-Urbana
Montrez Stone, former employee of One North:
- Testified Zhang was scheduled to view an apartment on the afternoon of June 9, 2017
- Prosecutors showed a text conversation between Stone and Zhang confirming they had an appointment adding she would be late
- Texted Zhang again Friday and Sunday, but never got a response
Tara Hurless, UIPD officer:
- Says she was called into work when Zhang was reported missing
- Went to Willard Airport with a detective to see if Zhang had rented a car or caught a flight
- Says they then asked MTD for surveillance video
- Says she conducted a search in the area of Zhang’s last phone ping
- Video shown of Zhang getting off the bus at Springfield and Matthews; she appears to chase after her connecting bus, while a black Saturn While a back Saturn Astra circles the block a couple times
Kenny Costa, UIPD Telecommunicator:
- Located the video of Zhang walking north on Goodwin Avenue
- Video shown of Astra circling the block a couple times; eventually, Zhang seen getting into car
George Sandwick, UIPD Officer:
- Says he went to car dealerships looking for any black Astras traded, sold or serviced
- Went to Zhang’s apartment in Orchard Downs to collect DNA evidence, including toothbrush, hairbrush and samples of her hair
- Took pictures of her apartment
James Carter, UIPD Sergeant:
- Says he reviewed video of the Astra and noted it had a damaged hubcap which could be used to identify it
- Says he passed the information on to detectives
- Says he canvassed hundreds of homes, businesses and storage units in search of surveillance video, but testified he found nothing else to help find Zhang or identify a suspect