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Illinois jury to decide death or life in prison for man convicted of beheading Chinese student

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By Bob Chiarito

PEORIA, Ill. (Reuters) – An Illinois jury of five women and seven men will continue deliberations on Thursday to decide if a man convicted of abducting and beheading a Chinese scholar will face a death sentence or spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Jurors deliberated for three hours on Wednesday without deciding the fate of Brendt Christensen, 29, in the U.S. District Court in Peoria, Illinois, about 165 miles (265 miles) southwest of Chicago.

He was convicted last month in the kidnapping and the decapitation murder of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about two years ago.

A unanimous decision by the panel is required to render a death sentence. Otherwise, Christensen will face life imprisonment by default, with no chance of ever being released.

Defence attorneys have asked for a life sentence, and claimed that their client has mental health problems.

During closing arguments on Wednesday, prosecutors described how 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 is the definition of heinous. This is the definition of shockingly evil,” James Nelson, a prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s capital case division, told the jury.

Details of the crime, including her 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.

Zhang’s remains have never been found, but prosecutors said her DNA matched blood found in Christensen’s bedroom.

Christensen’s lawyers acknowledged throughout the trial that their client killed Zhang, but asked the jury to consider that he had struggled with substance abuse and mental illness.

“The person he became was completely and totally inconsistent with the Brendt that he was for the first 26 years of his life,” defence attorney Elisabeth Pollock said in her summation.

Zhang was reported missing on June 9, 2017, two months after coming from southeastern China to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university.

The case has been closely watched by the media and government in China, as well as by Chinese students studying in the United States.

Zhang’s parents and fiance sat through the five-week trial.

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

“The defendant killed Yingying Zhang for sport and because he thought he could get away with it,” Nelson told jurors.

(Reporting by Bob Chiarito; additional writing by Rich McKay; Editing by Michael Perry)

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