Brendt Christensen avoids death penalty, sentenced to life in prison in U of I scholar’s slaying

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PEORIA, Ill. — A former University of Illinois student avoided the death penalty after a jury failed to reach a unanimous decision and instead gave him life without the possibility of parole after that same jury found him guilty of the abduction, rape and killing of a Chinese scholar.

The jurors returned their decision Thursday afternoon after deliberations in the sentencing of Brendt Christensen, 30. The life sentence is automatically applied if even one juror opposes execution.

The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen last month in the June 2017 killing of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang.

Christensen lowered his head and closed his eyes after the verdict. His mother did the same. There was no physical reaction from Zhang's family.

Christensen was offered an opportunity to make remarks in court, but he declined. U.S. District Court Judge Jim Shadid chastised him for that decision and added years to his sentence — a total of 10 years for two counts of lying to the FBI along with a $750,000 fine.

"There should be no second-guessing the decision of a jury. It is a cornerstone of our system. The mercy extended to you by the jury is a testament to their humanity, not your character," the judge said.

Family members of Zhang are hopeful that one day, Zhang's remains will be brought home and properly laid to rest.

Zhang, who was doing research at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the university, went missing on June 9, 2017 in Champaign. She was on her way to sign an apartment lease and was waiting for a bus around 2 p.m. June 9, 2017, when investigators said Christensen lured her into his car.

Surveillance video shows her speaking to the driver of a black Saturn Astra — the same type of car Christensen had — on the east side of Goodwin Avenue in Urbana before getting into the front passenger seat. That was the last time she was seen.

During the trial, prosecutors described how Christensen raped, choked and stabbed Zhang before beating her to death and decapitating her. Christensen has never revealed what he did with Zhang's remains.

The defense sought to humanize Christensen, including by showing video of him as a child.

The last person to be executed in Illinois was Andrew Kokoraleis, a member of the infamous "Ripper Crew." Kokoraleis was executed in 1999.

The death penalty was abolished in Illinois in 2011. However, federally, a defendant can still be given the death penalty only by a unanimous jury.

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