UI counselors take stand during penalty phase

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PEORIA COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — Jurors are one day closer to deciding whether Brendt Christensen spends his life in prison or is sentenced to death.

On Friday, several counselors were called to the stand. They spoke with Christensen just a few months before he killed U of I scholar, Yingying Zhang, in 2017. But before they were called, Christensen’s ex-wife, Michelle Zortman testified for the second time.

Zortman described their relationship — saying at one point they were all each other really had. Then Defense Attorney, Elisabeth Pollock, brought up a recording of Zortman talking about Terra Bullis, Christensen’s then-girlfriend. Zortman was heard saying, “I hope she (expletive) passes out up there and has to be carried out of the courtroom on a stretcher unconscious.”

Pollock asked Zortman what she had been doing before she said that. Zortman said she had been crying. The defense went on to ask Zortman if she was “emotionally out of sorts” when she said it — which Zortman confirmed. Zortman also said she regretted what she said.

In cross-examination, the prosecution asked Zortman about Christensen being “controlling.” They brought up two times when they said Christensen had told her what to wear to testify. Zortman said she didn’t know.

Felicia Li, a clinical counselor and triage case manager at UI testified. Li says someone at the counseling center discussed Christensen’s suicide risk with her.

The defense asks, “Were you aware Christensen said if he killed himself, he ‘wouldn’t do it in a way that someone could rescue him’ and he would ‘do it in a way he wasn’t found?'”

“No.”

Li was questioned as to whether she was told if Christensen had a plan to commit homicide, he had a “type” of victim and he brought things to help him execute the plan. Li responds she “wasn’t told any of this.”

The prosecution then started its line of questioning.

“Karen (who had directly met with Christensen at UI Counseling Center) had said in her report Christensen had indicated he was done with all those thoughts (suicidal and homicidal ideation)?”

“I don’t know.”

“If a client indicated they were ‘done,” would it impact treatment?”

“It could.”

The next witness called to the stand is Jennifer Maupin. She is now self-employed, but worked at the Counseling Center between 2010 – 2017.

The defense started reading portions of an assessment done on Christensen for intake at the center. The assessment shows the defendant ranked high on the scales for depression, academic distress, eating concerns, substance abuse and general distress, however, he ranked relatively low on the hostility scale.

Defense attorneys brought up Christensen’s assessment saying he indicated feeling “isolated and alone,” as well as “helpless.” He didn’t like himself, had spells of terror or panic and experienced nightmares or flashbacks.

The assessment also showed Christensen typically drank 15 – 20 shots of liquor over the course of 8-hours. His mother had a history of alcohol dependence and his sister abused substances as well.

The assessment shows Christensen stated Zortman wanted to separate mostly because of his alcohol abuse and he never made any other friends because his wife had “always been enough.”

Christensen also reported “depressive” mood symptoms, experienced thoughts of “guilt,” “helplessness” and “lethargy,” but was only getting 2 – 4 hours of sleep at night. He also noted his passion for his academic career decreased.

The defense continued reading the assessment which show Christensen had reported thoughts of harming others which escalated when he drank. It also showed he had homicidal ideations and had a fascination with serial killers. Christensen indicated he didn’t want to hurt anyone and “didn’t want to be that type of person.”

The defense asked Maupin about the campus violence assessment policy which she says she wasn’t familiar with. The defense brought up March 30, 2017, saying Maupin was on duty and met with Christensen that day. The defendant mentioned his wife was choosing to sleep with someone else.

The prosecution then started its line of questioning and asked, “Can you control anyone’s intentional actions?”

“No.”

“Did you try, to the best of your ability, to help Mr. Christensen?”

“Yes.”

The defense called another witness to the stand: Tom Miebach, a clinical counselor and triage case counselor. Miebach says the defendant indicated in March 2017, he had “passive” thoughts of suicide and hadn’t had any other more recent thoughts.

Miebach says Christensen told another UI counselor he had bought things for the “transport and disposal of a body,” but wouldn’t say what the items were and re-iterated he never made plans to do anything with them. The defense argues buying items is making a plan, but Miebach disagrees.

Finally, the defense called an expert witness, Dr. Susan Zoline, a clinical psychologist. She did not evaluate Christensen, but read and watched all of the evidence. She claimed Christensen was a serious risk to himself and others — based on his high scores in areas of anxiety and depression, plus his talk of homicide and suicide. She said, “I don’t believe he received the help he deserved.”

Prosecutors fired back — countering that Christensen stopped seeking help from the counseling center and did not reach out to Rosecrance as suggested. They also made the point that counselors are not mind readers — and could not have predicted Christensen’s actions.

On Friday afternoon, Brendt Christensen asked to leave the courtroom because of a migraine. The judge honored his request and said he would tell the jury the defendant is “not feeling well,” instead of going into detail. Christensen was excused for the remainder of the day.

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