A federal judge on Thursday sentenced Brendt Christensen, a former University of Illinois doctoral student, to life in prison without possibility of release for the kidnapping and killing of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang after a jury said it was unable to reach a unanimous decision on sentencing him to death or life in prison.
The jury deliberated for roughly eight hours over two days after more than a week of testimony in the trial's penalty phase during which they heard from Zhang's parents and brother, as well as her fiance. Zhang's family traveled to Peoria from their home in China for both the guilt and penalty phases of the trial.
Zhang's father, Zhang Ronggao, called the loss of his daughter "completely unbearable," in court last week.
"To tell you the truth, I do not know how to live the remainder of my life," he said through a translator.
The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen last month of kidnapping and killing Zhang.
Prosecutors and Zhang's family had pushed for the death penalty, but the jury's decision on that had to be unanimous. If even one juror opposed, then the life sentence was applied.
Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but Christensen was prosecuted under federal law. If he had been sentenced to death, he would have been executed by lethal injection.
Christensen, 30, a former graduate student at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, the same school Zhang Yingying was attending, would have been the first person to be sentenced to death in a federal courthouse in Illinois since 2006, if the jury reached a unanimous verdict that he should be executed.
Zhang was last seen alive on June 9, 2017, getting into Christensen's black Saturn Astra on the University of Illinois campus after she missed a bus to an appointment. The two did not previously know each other.
Christensen's lawyers admitted in June 2017 that he raped and killed the 26-year-old Zhang, and they sought life in prison rather than the death penalty.
Prosecutors said Christensen raped, choked and stabbed Zhang before beating her to death with a bat and decapitating her. Christensen has never revealed what he did with Zhang's remains.
FBI investigators testified they found her blood and DNA inside Christensen's Champaign apartment, where the former PhD candidate said he raped, beat and decapitated her, according to a statement he made to his then-girlfriend as they attended a memorial vigil for Zhang. Christensen was unaware his girlfriend was cooperating with the FBI and wearing a wire.
The defense tried to cast doubt on the recording, noting that he also claimed he had 12 other victims, a claim the FBI hasn't been able to corroborate.
That tape was played for jurors multiple times during trial and extensively during the government's closing statements Wednesday.
Prosecutors, in seeking the death penalty, presented aggravating factors such as Zhang's killing was pre-meditated, that she died during the commission of another crime – kidnapping, and she was particularly vulnerable because of her small size and limited English-speaking ability.