Jurors began deliberating but didn’t reach a decision Wednesday on whether a former University of Illinois doctoral student should be put to death for the brutal slaying of a scholar from China he abducted at a bus stop.
Brent Christensen’s attorney, Elisabeth Pollock, teared up earlier in the day during closing arguments in the penalty phase in U.S. District Court in Peoria, at one point walking behind her 30-year-old client and putting her hands on his shoulders.
“He is a whole person,” she said, looking across the room at jurors. “He is not just the worst thing he ever did.”
Pollock sought to humanize Christensen, telling jurors how he once bought a stuffed toy his sister wanted using his allowance money.
Prosecutors reminded jurors of a secret FBI recording in which Christensen laughed as he described luring 26-year-old Yingying Zhang into his car as she was running late to sign an apartment lease in 2017. He raped, choked and stabbed her as she fought back, then beat her to death with a bat and cut off her head. Her body was never found.
“Evil does exist,” prosecutor Eugene Miller told jurors. “What the defendant did was evil.”
All 12 jurors must agree to impose the death penalty. If even one opposes execution, the 30-year-old would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Pollock told told jurors that Christensen did kill Zhang, something the defense admitted at the outset of his trial last month. She said Christensen — a native of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, whose undergraduate degree was in physics and math — would die in prison whether by natural causes or lethal injection.
“He is leaving prison in a casket. The only question is when,” she said.
The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen at the trial last month.
Deliberations during the current penalty stage have already lasted longer and could potentially take days, with a complicated series of difficult questions jurors must answer, including whether Christensen displayed unique cruelty in how he killed Zhang or whether he exhibited redeeming qualities in his life.
Jurors began deliberating Wednesday afternoon and within just a few hours sent a note to the judge asking about the order they should consider those factors. Judge James Shadid sent a note back saying they should consult the written instructions. After three hours, the judge excused jurors for the day. They’ll return Thursday morning.
In his closing, prosecutor James Nelson at one point held up the bat Christensen used to kill Zhang. He told jurors the slaying of Zhang, who Christensen didn’t know, was part of the fulfillment of Christensen’s fantasy to become infamous as a killer.
“The defendant killed Yingying for sport,” he said, adding that death was the only just punishment for a crime so “horrific.”
Prosecutors said Christensen likely forced the 5-foot-4 Zhang into a 6-foot-long duffel bag to carry her up to his apartment in Urbana, Champaign’s sister city 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.