Jury selection starts Monday in missing U of I Chinese scholar case
CHICAGO — The mother and father of a 26-year-old visiting Chinese scholar who went missing in 2017 arrived at a central Illinois courthouse on Monday for the start of the federal death-penalty trial of a former University of Illinois graduate student accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing their daughter.
TV footage showed Yingying Zhang’s father and mother walking into the federal courthouse in Peoria just before U.S. District Judge James Shadid began the process of picking 12 jurors and six alternate jurors to hear evidence against Brendt Christensen . The judge has said jury selection should take over a week.
Zhang went missing on June 9, 2017, as she was running late to sign a lease for an off-campus apartment in Urbana, which is next to Champaign and about 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago. She had just missed a bus when Christensen tricked or forced her into his car, prosecutors say.
Christensen, 29, has pleaded not guilty to kidnapping resulting in death. If convicted, jurors would decide whether he should be executed. Illinois abolished capital punishment in 2011, but it is available under federal law.
Among the evidence prosecutors intend to introduce are apparent blood stains in Christensen’s bedroom and a bat, which was found in the same room. Prosecutors also want to show jurors a copy of the book of “American Psycho,” which Christensen gave an acquaintance — though prosecutors haven’t said why the book might be relevant.
They also want to site excerpts of a journal Zhang kept in Illinois. Her parents told The Associated Press in 2017 that her last entry was: “Life is too short to be ordinary.”
Complicating the task of prosecutors is that Zhang’s body hasn’t been found. They’ll point to Zhang’s blood in Christensen’s apartment and that a cadaver-sniffing dog indicated a dead body had been there as proof that she’s dead.
The family travelled to Illinois from China last week. Initially they’d indicated they would watch the trial on closed-circuit video from a federal courthouse near the University of Illinois campus.
Zhang’s mother said in 2017 that not having Yingying’s body added to the pain.
“I want to ask the mother of the suspect, please talk to her son and ask him what he did to my daughter,” she said. “Where is she now? I want to know the answer.”