Jury to consider death penalty in Chinese scholar killing
Photo: Brendt Christensen (left); Yingying Zhang (right)

via WGN

CHICAGO (WGN) -- A federal jury that convicted a former University of Illinois doctoral student of kidnapping, torturing and killing a young scholar from China now must decide if Brendt Christensen should be put to death.

While the state of Illinois, where she was killed, does not have the death penalty, the case was brought under federal law, which does allow capital punishment.

The jury returned a guilty verdict on June 24 after deliberating for less than 90 minutes, in part, because the 30-year-old Christensen’s own lawyers told jurors from the outset that he did kill 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, saying their sole objective was to persuade jurors to spare his life.

The penalty phase, which is set to start Monday, is sure to be more contentious and more emotionally grueling. Here’s a look out how it will work and how it could play out:


A: The penalty phase is a kind of mini-trial with openings, exhibits, testimony and closings. It’s expected to last at least as long as the verdict phase, around a week and a half. Deliberations over whether Christensen should live or die are almost certain to last longer. If just one juror holds out against the death penalty, he’d be sentenced to life without parole.

The form jurors must fill out at the end of deliberation has multiple sections. The first simply asks if Christensen qualifies for the death penalty because he’s over 18 and intended to kill Zhang.

Later sections are the hard parts.

A section on “aggravating factors” asks jurors, among other things, if Christensen killed Zhang “in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner” and whether he’s shown no remorse. A section on “mitigation factors” asks jurors if aspects of Christensen’s “background, record or character…. mitigate against imposition of a death sentence.”

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