Prosecutors say suspect killed Chinese scholar, then cut her head off

Yingying Zhang and Brendt Christensen

CHICAGO (AP) – A federal prosecutor has shared with jurors grisly details of how they claim a former University of Illinois doctoral student kidnapped a visiting scholar from China, then brutally beat and killed her.

Opening statements began Wednesday in the federal death-penalty trial of Brendt Christensen. Christensen is accused of luring 26-gear-old Yingying Zhang into his car in June 2017 as she headed to sign a lease off campus.

Prosecutors told jurors Wednesday that Christensen took Zhang to his apartment where he raped, choked and stabbed her in his bedroom. They said Christensen later pummeled her in the head with a baseball bat in his bathroom before decapitating her.

Christensen’s attorney, George Tesseff, in his opening statement admitted that his client kidnapped and killed Zhang.

But he said the 29-year-old Christensen was “on trial for his life,” alluding to the possibility of a death sentence if he is found guilty of kidnapping and killing 26-year-old Yingying Zhang.

While the defense agreed Christensen kidnapped and killed Zhang, Tesseff said they took issue with prosecutors’ explanation of “how and why.”

Defense teams in death penalty trials often have the goal of ensuring their client doesn’t get the death penalty and so their focus is on that and not on winning a not-guilty verdict.

The case is being closely watched by Chinese students across the U.S. The University of Illinois has more than 5,000 Chinese students, among the largest such enrollments in the nation.

A federal judge moved the trial to Peoria after Christensen’s lawyers said pretrial publicity would have made it impossible for the 29-year-old to get a fair trial in the Champaign area, where U of I is located.

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