The penalty phase of the trial of the man convicted of kidnapping and killing a University of Illinois visiting scholar is underway.
Prosecutors began making their case Monday that Brendt Christensen should be put to death for causing the death of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang.
Jurors received preliminary instructions to start the penalty phase. Government attorney James Nelson handled opening statements for the prosecution. He emphasized the extraordinary promise Zhang had and started to define for the jury what Christensen took when killed her. Nelson said Yingying means "brightly shining light." He told jurors that she was indeed a, “bright and shining light that fell forever dark,” in a cold and calculated way that was months in the planning. He told them the government will present aggravating factors that it believes qualify Christensen for death penalty.
In defense opening statements, attorney Julie Brain told the jury their guilty verdict will ensures Christensen will die in jail, reiterating, “he did it and must be punished.” But Brain painted a picture of a man who struggled with his own “inner demons,” whose life was “unraveling in his own mind,” She told the jury when he reach out for help in the months just before Zhang’s disappearance, he was turned away and he sank deeper into drug and alcohol abuse.
Brain also told the jury, “none of us are defined by the worst things we’ve done.” She said the decision before them was based less on fact and more of a moral question that each must decide. She asked them to deliver justice with mercy and spare his life.
Government prosecutors began laying out their case for the death penalty, playing tapes of Zhang’s best undergraduate and graduate school friends and roommates. They defined her as a vibrant, fun, outgoing, smart, strong, driven, kind person. Most of the four young women, whose testimony was video recorded and translated, reached for tissues as they were asked to define what her loss meant to them.
Prosecutors plan to present a recording with Zhang’s mother today. She remains distraught, so much so she has viewed the proceedings from the overflow room on the first floor of the courthouse, while trial is taking place on the second floor. Zhang’s brother and father will also take the stand.
Attorney Eugene Miller told the judge they might be able to rest their case by the end of the day Tuesday, and will certainly be done by Wednesday. The defense will then begin presenting their case, before the matter goes to the jury for deliberation.