Justice for Yingying Zhang


Xinyang Zhang, Yingying’s brother (right), leads their mother Lifeng Ye (center) after the family addresses the public. Ronggao Zhang, Yingying and Xinyang’s father (left), made the statement. Brendt Christensen was found guilty by the jury on June 24.

By Samantha Boyle, News Editor

Two years after Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar from China, went missing, justice was brought to her and her family this summer as the trial, U.S. v. Brendt Christensen began on June 3 at the U.S. Courthouse in Peoria with the jury selection process. Christensen, former University graduate student, was federally charged with kidnapping Zhang, resulting in death, along with two non-federal charges of giving the FBI false statements.  

The trial consisted of two phases: the guilty or not guilty phase and the sentencing phase. In the sentencing phase, Christensen possibly faced the possibility of the death penalty. The trial lasted almost two months as the final verdict was decided on July 18.

Below is a chronological breakdown of significant dates of the trial.

Trial begins

On June 3, the court started its process in selecting a jury of 18 people for the trial. A total of 477 people were sent a jury summons, but not all were called in. Two groups of potential jurors came in every day until 70 were approved. Once the court had 70 jurors, the two parties of the case were able to strike out potential jurors until 18 were selected. Twelve of these jurors were sitting on the active jury and the other six sat as alternates. 

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    Official jury seated

    The 18 potential jurors were chosen and seated on June 11. 

    Christensen’s lawyers do not deny he killed Zhang.

    As opening statements for the first phase of the trial began on June 12, Christensen’s attorneys openly admit he is responsible for Zhang’s death but is pleading not guilty because he is “on trial for his life.”  They admitted that nothing they will say in their statements would deny Christensen’s responsibility. The prosecution told the jury the story of what they believe actually happened to Zhang on June 9, 2017, saying she was kidnapped, raped, tortured, murdered and decapitated. 

    First witnesses brought up to stand

    After opening statements on June 12, the first witnesses were brought up to the stand by the government. Some witnesses questioned included members of the University Police Department, Zhang’s fiance Xiaolin Hou, an employee from the One North Apartment complex, a University professor, Christensen’s ex-girlfriend and more. Christensen’s defense counsel brought in their witnesses after, as they tried to humanize Christensen throughout the trial to the jury.

    Closing statements commence and verdict follows 90 minutes later

    About a week after the initial opening statements, on June 24, both parties rested their cases and gave closing statements. Once the jury started its deliberations, it came back with a verdict in less than two hours, finding Christensen guilty of all charges. The sentencing phase began two weeks later. The jury listened to evidence and decided if Christensen should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.

    Opening statements in sentencing phase start

    As the jurors took a two-week break after the guilty or not guilty phase, they were not able to discuss the case or read about it in any way. As they returned for the start of the sentencing phase on July 8, they were asked by the judge if they had discussed the case in any matter, and none of them had. They were able to continue the process with opening statements from both parties.

    Christensen’s attorneys continued attempts to humanize him to the jury, while the prosecutors had the burden of proof. The prosecutors were required to prove a number of things, such as substantial planning and torture or serious phsyical harm to the victim, for the jury to be able to sentence Christensen to death.

    The Zhang family testifies in penalty phase

    On the second day of the penalty phase, July 10, Yingying’s mother, Lifeng Ye testified through a prerecorded video, but Yingying’s father, Ronggao Zhang, testified in person.

    Christensen’s family testify in penalty phase

    Along with other correctional officers and some friends, Christensen’s family took the stand on behalf of him on July 15. Christensen’s mother, her husband, Christensen’s sister and father all testified. All said they would still love and support him throughout a life sentence. Their testimonies demonstrated a family history of alcoholism and mental health disorders. 

    “It would be horrible,” said Christensen’s mother, Ellen Williams, when asked how an execution would affect her. “It would be devastating.” 

    Jury starts deliberating to decide Christensen’s fate

    Closing statements for the sentencing phase began July 17. In its closing statements, the prosecution said on July 17 it had been 767 days since Zhang disappeared and justice would finally be served. The prosecution firmly believed all the evidence it presented was enough to prove Christensen should be sentenced to death. 

    The defense again mentioned it did not deny Christensen’s responsibility in Yingying’s death but believed they gave the jury the necessary information to mitigate the death penalty, saying “the law is always satisfied with a life sentence.” After the statements, the jury began deliberation. The jury would have to unanimously agree to sentence Christensen to death. 

    Verdict reached one day later

    The jury could not reach a verdict the day deliberations began, so discussion continued a day later. The jury had a few questions for the court throughout deliberations, one juror asking what would happen if a unanimous decision could be reached. A verdict was reached shortly after. The jurors were not able to unanimously agree on a sentence, therefore automatically sentencing Christensen to life in prison.

    His sentence was officially imposed the afternoon of July 18. Judge James Shadid gave a statement from the court during this time addressing the Zhang family, saying he hopes the verdict can provide some comfort.

    “Your lack of remorse was shown again today,” Shadid said to Christensen, as Christensen did not make any statements to the court or the Zhang family when given the opportunity. “(Even) 769 days after taking away Yingying Zhang’s life, you cannot muster one I’m sorry.”

    For two counts of false statements, Christensen was also fined $250,000.

    Recovery of Zhang’s body unlikely

    Weeks after the final verdict, on Aug. 7, information about Zhang’s remains was released to the public. In November, prosecutors were provided with this information “under immunity,” which kept it from the trial.

    According to a statement, Christensen dismembered Zhang’s body and placed her remains in three separate garbage bags. He then disposed of them in a dumpster outside of his apartment, which was taken to a private landfill in Danville, Illinois, days after the initial kidnapping.

    Yingying fund officially established

    The University officially announced Yingying’s Fund on Aug. 19. The first donation to this fund was made by the Zhang family to honor and remember Yingying’s life. The fund will be used in the future to help international students and their families when faced with sudden crises, as the Zhang family faced two years ago. 

    “We believe this is Yingying’s wish, and this is the best way to celebrate and honor her life,” said Ronggao, said in a statement at the press conference. 

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