U of I killer Brendt Christensen would join exclusive federal death penalty fraternity

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff WLS logo
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
U of I killer Brendt Christensen would join exclusive federal death penalty fraternity
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Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang was murdered by Brendt Christensen in 2017. His death penalty hearing begins on July 8.

It is a club so exclusive that Illinois has had only two members in the entire history of the state.

Brendt Christensen would become just the third recipient of the federal death penalty in Illinois.

Christensen was found guilty yesterday in the kidnap/killing of Yingying Zhang, a Chinese scholar at University of Illinois' flagship campus.

U.S. prosecutors will soon ask a jury to impose the death penalty on Christensen, 29, for the 2017 torture-murder that received widespread news coverage in China.

Even though Illinois banished capital punishment in 2011, because U.S. kidnapping laws allow for the death penalty and Christensen was prosecuted federally, authorities are seeking his execution.

Such punishment is exceedingly rare.

There are currently 62 federal inmates on death row. Only three prisoners have been executed since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988 after a 16-year moratorium.

The last Illinois inmate to be executed by the United States was on July 14, 1938.

Right now just one federal inmate in Illinois is on death row: Ronald Mikos was sentenced in 2005. Mikos was an MD who murdered one of his patients, a disabled church employee who was to testify against him in a million dollar Medicare fraud case.

Likewise, Indiana currently has just one inmate on federal death row. Odell "Nasih Khalil" Corley was convicted in 2004 of murdering two tellers while trying to rob the First State Bank of Porter.

Brendt Christensen's death penalty hearing is set to begin July 8th and expected to last at least one week.

"The U.S. Attorney's office considering asking for death penalty they did consult with the family" said Zhi Dong Wang, an attorney for the parents of Yingying Zhang. "The family's input was a consideration. The family did ask the prosecutors to consider and to request for death penalty."

Even if he is sentenced to die, Christensen would not be executed in an Illinois facility.

Federal capital punishment is carried out at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. The last such execution, of Gulf War veteran and murderer/rapist Louis Jones Jr, occurred at the Terre Haute prison in 2003.

Death sentences under federal law are by lethal injection and there is an execution chamber at Terre Haute outfitted with chemical lines for administering deadly IV fluids.

While the Justice Department tagged Christensen's case as a death penalty prosecution, data show he is more likely to receive a life sentence once the decision comes down. According to statistics collected by the Death Penalty Information Center, juries select life in prison in about 70% of all capital cases.

If a jury votes for execution, in federal cases the trial judge may overrule the decision and convert the sentence to life behind bars.

In Christensen's case, the prospect of being executed weighed on him even before he was arrested. On FBI undercover recordings of conversations that he had with his girlfriend, Christensen is heard saying that he could be killed for his conduct.