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Illinois jury to hear sentencing arguments in gruesome slaying of Chinese student

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(Reuters) – A jury that convicted an Illinois man in the kidnapping and gruesome murder of a Chinese graduate student will soon begin deliberations about whether Brendt Christensen will spend the rest of his life in prison or be put to death.

Closing arguments in the sentencing phase of Christensen’s trial will begin on Wednesday.

A federal jury in Peoria, Illinois, found Christensen, 29, guilty last month of the abduction and murder of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty under U.S. kidnapping laws. Defence attorneys are seeking to spare Christensen, 29, with a life sentence.

Prosecutors said Christensen, a one-time masters student at the university, took Zhang to his apartment, where she fought for her life as he bludgeoned her with a baseball bat, raped her and stabbed her in the neck before cutting off her head.

“This was not an ordinary crime,” James Nelson, a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s capital case division, told the jury. “It was cold, cruel and calculated.”

Christensen’s lawyers asked the jury to spare his life, saying he had struggled with substance abuse and mental illness.

“No one who grew up with Brendt would have ever guessed that this is how his life would end up,” Julie Brain, one of his lawyers, told the jury.

Brain showed the jury photographs of Christensen dressed in his Boy Scout and football uniforms.

Zhang was reported missing on June 9, 2017, two months after coming from southeastern China to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university. Her remains have never been found but prosecutors said her DNA was matched to blood later found in three spots inside Christensen’s bedroom.

Investigators were led to Christensen through surveillance video footage captured in Urbana, 130 miles (210 km) south of Chicago, that showed Zhang getting into a black car that was later traced to him.

Earlier in the trial in U.S. District Court in Peoria, prosecutors characterized Christensen as having a fascination with serial killers. These included Ted Bundy, who murdered dozens of women during the 1970s and was put to death in 1989.

Details of the crime, including Zhang’s decapitation, were revealed by Christensen in conversations with a girlfriend secretly recorded for FBI agents investigating the case before his arrest, according to trial testimony.

A close friend of Zhang’s, Ye Cai, read aloud during the trial some of the many messages the pair swapped on the internet.

“How big is the world?” Zhang wrote in one of the messages. “I will measure it with my feet.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Paul Tait)

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