Jury begins deliberations on whether U of I killer Brendt Christensen should receive death penalty

PEORIA, Ill. (WLS) -- Closing arguments were heard Wednesday morning in the sentencing phase of Brendt Christensen's murder trial in Peoria.

The same jury that convicted Christensen last month of kidnapping and murdering Chinese U of I scholar Yingying Zhang in 2017 will decide whether he should get the death penalty or life in prison.

Before deliberating, the jury heard differing portraits of Christensen. The defense described him as a man drowning in pain, and the prosecution called him a depraved killer.

In closing arguments, Federal Prosecutor James Nelson told the jury "the defendant didn't kill Yingying Zhang because he was drunk ... or depressed. The defendant killed Yingying Zhang for sport."

Nelson told the jury Christensen premeditated the crime, targeting Zhang because she was half his weight, as he held up a 6 ft. long, human-sized duffle bag. It was similar to one Christensen bought before the murder, which was never found. He said Christensen tortured Zhang before "destroying" her body.

"He disposed of her remains in a way in which they'll never be recovered," Nelson said.

Nelson also described how Christensen cleaned his car and home to cover up the crime. He said Christensen continued to use the mattress where Zhang's DNA was found in blood.

"The defendant continued to sleep on that mattress with his wife," Nelson said. "He continued to go on as if nothing happened."

In an effort to spare Christensen the death penalty, the defense brought context to the crime.

"We have stood with Brendt for almost two years. He is a whole person. He's not just the worst thing he's ever done," Defense Attorney Elisabeth Pollock tearfully said.

Pollock said the crime is Christensen's fault alone, but reminded the jury of his family's history of mental illness.

Before the murder, Christensen struggled with alcoholism and symptoms of depression. He unsuccessfully sought help.

"Does someone deserve to die who went into a counseling center, Pollock said.

Christensen's confession was recorded at Zhang's vigil, in which he described the murder in gruesome details. Pollock said he was not telling the truth.

"Brendt lied on that tape. He lied through his teeth. He was so twisted up at that time ... It was just theater," Pollock said.

In contrast, Zhang was described as vibrant and her family's heart.

Nelson said,"That's why Yingying fought so hard. She had so much to live for."

The jury met for deliberations for about two and a half hours Wednesday afternoon.They will resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday.

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