Sentencing phase begins

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PEORIA, Ill. (WCIA) — The sentencing phase started today for the man who kidnapped and killed UI scholar Yingying Zhang.

The same jurors who convicted Brendt Christensen are expected to sentence him to either the death penalty of life in prison without the possibility of release.

Jurors heard opening statements from both sides on Monday. Prosecutors read a quote from Zhang’s journal, written around the time she was killed, in June 2017. It read,

Life is too short to be ordinary.”

–Yingying Zhang’s journal

Prosecutors talked about Zhang’s life and dreams, saying jurors need to know those details in order to deliver a just sentence. They say her death was “cold, calculated, cruel … months in the making.” They say new evidence will show Brendt Christensen is still a risk to others and lacks remorse. They argue the crime deserves “extraordinary punishment” — the death penalty.

In the defense team’s opening statements, they noted that jurors sealed Christensen’s fate with their conviction last month — because one way or another, he will die in federal prison. They hope to prove he deserves to live until his natural death.

Defense lawyers say Christensen has always struggled with mental health issues. They told jurors there’s a history on both sides of his family. People in the courtroom heard about the struggles he had during his time at school in Champaign, between 2013 and 2017. That’s when lawyers say he struggled to keep up in school and his marriage started to fail. He tried to get help twice from counselors two months before Zhang was killed. While his defense team agrees he needs to be punished for Zhang’s death, they say life in prison would be a significant punishment … “never to see the light of say … never a day of freedom.”

The government started calling people to the stand on Monday afternoon. That included three FBI employees who helped translate videos recorded of Zhang’s friends. Jurors started to hear those videos. Zhang’s boyfriend also took the stand. Jurors also saw video of Zhang performing the song, Complicated, by Avril Lavigne. They learned she loved to sing, had started a band in school and played the guitar.

Court resumes Tuesday at 9 am.

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