Life or death: First witnesses called to stand for beginning of penalty phase


Samantha Boyle

Yingying Zhang’s family walks out of the courtroom July 8. Walking in the front is Yingying’s father, Ronggao. Her brother, Xinyang Zhang and mother, Lifeng Ye follow with boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou.

By Samantha Boyle, News Editor

After a guilty verdict was reached about two weeks ago, members of the jury must now decide the punishment of Brendt Christensen for kidnapping and killing visiting scholar Yingying Zhang.

For the jury to decide if it will sentence Christensen to life in prison or death depends on the government’s aggravating factors and the defense’s mitigating factors. The aggravating factors are what the government believes are reasons to sentence Christensen to death. The mitigating factors are reasons he should avoid the death penalty and serve a life sentence.

The jury must decide whether or not the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating or vise versa.

The government’s aggravating factors they must prove include that Zhang’s death caused loss within her family and friends, that the defendant lacked remorse and obstructed the investigation, that torture and serious physical harm occurred, that the defendant substantially planned out the crime and more.

The mitigating factors include a list of information about Christensen’s mental health history such as his mother and father’s side having a history of mental health struggles. Additionally, Christensen has no other criminal history, and he is unlikely to commit a crime in jail if he receives the life sentence.

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The opening statements

The defense and prosecutors made their opening statements Monday around 1:40 p.m., following the motion hearing that took place that morning.

Prosecutor James Nelson gave the first opening statement. He opened with a quote from Zhang’s journal: “Life is too short to be ordinary.”

This is one of the last things she wrote in the journal and one of the few things she wrote in English, Nelson said.

So far, the members of the jury have only heard about how Zhang died, he said. But they must also know how she lived.

He spoke of Zhang’s relationship with her family, saying she was the “brightest shining light in her family.”

Christensen’s crime was heinous and sinister, Nelson said. It was cold, cruel and took months of planning. Possibly the worst part, he said, was that Christensen made Zhang’s body disappear.

Zhang is presumed dead, even though her body has not been found.

Nelson mentioned Zhang’s death was “no ordinary loss” and this was “no ordinary crime,” that it was rather “extraordinary,” which calls for an extraordinary punishment: the death penalty.

Elisabeth Pollock (left) and Julie Brain (right) walk out of the courtroom on Monday. Pollock and Brain are both attorneys for defendant Brendt Christensen.

However, Julie Brain said in the defense’s opening statement, that no matter the sentence, Christensen will die in prison. The question now, she said, is whether that be due to natural causes or by a date chosen by the government.

Brain took the jury through Christensen’s life, while his father sat on the right side of the courtroom in the second row.

Showing pictures of Christensen growing up, Brain said he secretly struggled with his mental health his whole life. After graduating from high school, he attended community college until getting into University of Wisconsin Madison in 2009. He later got accepted into the doctoral program for physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Looking from the outside in, his life was going great,” Brain said. “What happened next was a four-year battle with his demons that little by little he lost.”

She said the decision of giving Christensen the death penalty is a moral one and that each juror is entitled to his or her own opinion during deliberation.

“He’s no serial killer,” Brain said. “He’s a young man who had potential.”

First witnesses called to the stand

Opening statements ended at around 2:17 p.m., and the first witness was sworn in at 2:19 p.m.

The government called four different witnesses to the stand on Monday. The first three were language specialists for the FBI. All of their native languages are Mandarin Chinese. Each one spoke about what they do on a daily basis, which is generally some sort of translating documents or videos.

Xueli Zhao-Galdony, the first witness, said it could take her up to an hour to translate one minute of Chinese to English.

The fourth witness was Xiaolin Hou, Zhang’s boyfriend who she planned to marry in October 2017.

During his questioning, Hou was asked about how he met Zhang and how he would describe her.

“She’s kind. She’s brave. She’s smart,” Hou said. “She’s the best girl I’ve ever met.”

Several videos were shown during Hou’s testimony as well. Four separate videos of close friends of Zhang were played for the jury.

In each video, the friends were asked about how they met Zhang, what her personality was like, how her relationship with her family was and how the loss of Zhang has impacted them personally.

Through tears and sobs, each one could say Zhang’s loss has had a significant impact on their life.

“I lost a very good friend,” said Xiao Zhang, one of Yingying’s close friends, in a video.

Yingying’s friends were able to paint a picture of what she was like for the jury. Free-spirited, smiley and a genuinely good person and friend were common themes among the videos.

Lisha Fang, another one of Yingying’s friends said she was nervous for Yingying to study in the United States and worried for her safety. However, she was also happy for her because it was something Yingying really wanted to do.

Fang was six months pregnant in June 2017 and said Yingying was almost more excited for the baby than she was, saying Yingying dreamt of having a baby of her own one day.

“Now all these things are impossible,” Fang said. Fang’s husband was Hou’s roommate in college.

Hou also talked about how he and Yingying shared many hobbies, one being singing. Yingying even had a band at one point, called Cute Horse.

The jury was shown a video of her and her band playing Complicated by Avril Lavigne. Yingying was the lead singer of the band. This was also the first time the jury heard anything from Yingying herself.

“I mean her talents were multi-faceted, as well as her personality,” said another one of Yingying’s friends, Kaiyun Zhao.

Going forward with the penalty phase

Brendt Christensen’s father, Mike Christensen (left), walks out of the courtroom in Peoria on Monday. Mike will be testifying during the penalty phase this week and has been frequently present for his son’s trial.

Court adjourned at around 4:50 p.m. and will pick up again on Tuesday at 9 a.m., with Hou still on the witness stand.

Yingying’s family, including her father and brother will also testify during this phase this week. However, a video of Yingying’s mother will be shown to the jury, instead of an in-person testimony.

The defense will follow with the next several witnesses, including Christensen’s father, Mike Christensen.

Court adjourned at around 4:55 p.m. Monday.

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