Deliberations begin for verdict in Christensen trial


Samantha Boyle

The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse sits at 100 Northeast St. in Peoria. The trial for Brendt Christensen, alleged kidnapper and murderer of Yingying Zhang, began here June 3 with the jury selection process. The defense and prosecutors made their closing statements Monday.

By Samantha Boyle, News Editor

Defense attorneys and prosecutors made their closing arguments in U.S. v. Christensen Monday morning.

Brendt Christensen, once a doctoral student at the University, is accused of kidnapping and killing visiting scholar Yingying Zhang, as well as making two false statements to the FBI just weeks after the disappearance of Zhang.

Prosecutor Eugene Miller made his final rebuttals against defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock prior to 11:34 a.m. Monday. The court then entered a recess as the jury will meet to deliberate and decide a verdict: guilty or not guilty.

If the verdict is guilty, Christensen could face the death penalty. This is what Judge James Shadid called the sentencing phase, which could also last about two to three weeks. During the jury’s deliberation after this phase, they will decide if Christensen should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In Miller’s statement, he repeated numerous times what he also said in his opening statement about Christensen: “He kidnapped her. He murdered her. He covered up his crime.”

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    Miller stated he was not aware the defense would acknowledge Christensen’s responsibility.

    “So why have eight days of evidence?“ he asked the jury.

    The government had the burden of proof. They had to convince the jury Christensen was guilty of the three charges beyond their reasonable doubt.

    Alcohol abuse did not cause this, Miller said. Alcohol allowed Christensen to share the dark thoughts he was having about hurting others.

    “This was always about murder,” Miller said.

    He claimed in the six months Christensen planned the kidnapping and murder, he wasn’t drunk the whole time. Michelle Zortman, Christensen’s ex-wife, testified on Friday that alcohol did not cause him to become angry or violent.

    “The defendant is the one responsible. The defendant is the only one responsible,” Miller said toward the end of his argument.

    He closed his argument by asking the jury to return with a guilty verdict to all three counts.

    At around 11:25 a.m., Elisabeth Pollock made the closing argument for the defense, stating again they will not deny Christensen’s responsibility in Zhang’s death.

    “It’s Brendt’s fault,” she told the jury. “We’re trying to show you context.”

    She said the defense has some issues with the government’s evidence, saying some evidence asks the jury to assume what is true. For example, the recordings Terra Bullis, Christensen’s ex-girlfriend, took at the memorial walk for Zhang on June 29, 2017. Pollock said it was Christensen was trying to impress Bullis with his bragging of what he did to Zhang.

    She said there’s not much to dispute about what happened to Zhang, but Christensen did want to seek help for his dark thoughts, citing his visits to the University Counseling Center.

    He lost control of his alcohol, schoolwork and marriage, Pollock said.

    “We ask you to keep your hearts and your minds open,” she told the jury at the end of her statement.

    The jury left the courtroom for lunch and deliberation at 11:34 a.m. Updates will follow once a verdict is reached.

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