By Bob Chiarito
PEORIA, Ill. (Reuters) – Federal prosecutors on Monday accused an Illinois man of carrying out a calculated plan to kidnap and kill a Chinese graduate student two years ago, in closing arguments of the man’s murder trial in central Illinois.
Brendt Christensen, 29, could face the death penalty if he is convicted in the June 2017 abduction and murder of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Her body has not been found, but prosecutors said an evidence team matched her DNA to blood found in three places in Christensen’s bedroom.
While the state of Illinois has outlawed capital punishment, a federal trial allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
“He raped her, he murdered her and then spent the next three weeks trying to cover up the crime,” said Eugene Miller, an assistant U.S. attorney for central Illinois.
Miller said Christensen had spent up to six months planning a murder and had chosen Zhang because she was small and appeared to be an easy target.
During the defence’s closing arguments earlier on Monday, Christensen’s lawyers acknowledged that their client killed Zhang but hinted they hoped to persuade the jury to spare Christensen’s life during the penalty phase of the trial.
“This is not the ultimate decision. You have to realise there’s more,” attorney Elisabeth Pollock said to the jury.
The judge warned Pollock twice not to refer to the possible penalty following the verdict, as the jury was only supposed to consider the evidence.
Christensen arrived in court, handcuffed, wearing a light blue shirt and tan slacks with no tie or belt. He remained stoic as he listened to both sides give closing arguments.
Earlier in the trial, prosecutors said Christensen was obsessed with serial killers including Ted Bundy, who murdered dozens of women in the 1970s.
They alleged that Christensen took Zhang to his apartment where she fought for her life as Christensen hit her over the head with a baseball bat, raped her and stabbed her in the neck before cutting off her head.
The jury began deliberating immediately after hearing Monday’s closing arguments, which concluded eight days of testimony.
Investigators were led to Christensen after surveillance cameras in Urbana, 130 miles (210 km) south of Chicago, recorded Zhang getting into a black car that authorities later traced to him, according to an arrest warrant affidavit by an FBI agent.
(Reporting by Bob Chiarito; additional reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; editing by Frank McGurty and Tom Brown)