Unusual new legal twist in University of Illinois Chinese scholar murder

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff WLS logo
Saturday, January 12, 2019
Unusual new legal twist in U of I Chinese scholar murder
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Our ABC7 I-Team has been investigating the disappearance and death of Yingying Zhang since June , 2017 when she was seen getting into Brendt Christensen's vehicle on a Champaign street.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Attorneys representing a Champaign man charged in the kidnapping and death of a foreign scholar at University of Illinois say a federal case is being made unconstitutionally just because the victim was Chinese, the I-Team has learned.

Newly filed court documents on Friday reveal that attorneys for Brendt Christensen want a judge to throw out the U.S. indictment and plans to seek the federal death penalty. They say both violate the Equal Protection Clause because charging decisions shouldn't be based on a victim's nationality.

Christensen is facing the federal death penalty in the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, 26, a Chinese national. "In light of the government's admission, as well as its previous invocations of the fact that the victim was Chinese, the conclusion that the victim's national origin also unconstitutionally influenced the decision to seek the death penalty against Mr.

Christensen is inescapable" his attorney's claim. The State of Illinois has banned use of the death penalty.

His attorneys claim state prosecutors should be handling this case rather than the feds-and that federal authorities last month admitted the only reason it was their case was because the victim was Chinese. "National origin is a constitutionally impermissible consideration in a charging decision, and initiating a prosecution based on the victim's national origin is a clear violation of the Equal Protection Clause" Christensen's attorneys state in the new Motion to Dismiss.

Zhang disappeared on June 9, 2017. Her disappearance prompted a campus-wide search, vigils and memorials-and brought the victim's family from China to Champaign. Investigators said the young woman texted a property manager the afternoon she vanished, saying she was running late for a lease signing they had scheduled. That manager sent her a message back about an hour later, but received no response. Several other colleagues were also unable to reach Zhang that evening.

Prosecutors said security camera footage captured her standing at the corner of Clark Street and Goodwin Avenue in Urbana that afternoon, when a black Saturn Astra allegedly driven by Christensen pulled up beside her.

His attorneys stipulate Christensen was indeed the one driving that vehicle, but claim there is no evidence showing he forced Zhang into his car. Because of that, they say a charge of kidnapping cannot be proven.

In a nagging mystery at U of I, Zhang hasn't been seen since that June afternoon, 2017 and her body has never been found.

Christensen, 29, a former Ph.D. student at U of I, has a master's degree in physics.

Christensen's attorneys claim that during a December 14th federal court hearing, "the government refuted the defense's assertion that it decided to prosecute Mr. Christensen in federal court because it wished to secure a death sentence against him by admitting instead that the decision was made because his alleged victim was Chinese."

There has been no ruling on the Motion to Dismiss, although several previous requests-on other grounds-were denied. A hearing has not been scheduled on the latest motion.

Defense attorneys on Friday also requested that prosecutors turn over notes, emails and memos of phone calls or verbal conversations regarding the decision to charge Christiansen.

His case has been moved to Peoria.