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Federal trial to begin for Illinois man accused of killing Chinese student

Reuters 2019-06-12 10:16:00

(Reuters) - The federal trial of an Illinois man accused of kidnapping and killing a visiting Chinese scholar two years ago was set to begin on Wednesday, with prosecutors having already said they would seek the death penalty.

Brendt Christensen, 29, has been held without bond since he was arrested in June 2017 for the abduction and presumed slaying of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her body has not been found.

Christensen, a onetime master’s student at the university, has been charged with murder, kidnapping and lying to federal investigators. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Prosecutors and Christensen’s defense team are expected to make opening statements in front of a jury of 12 in U.S. District Court in Peoria, Illinois on Wednesday morning, according to online court records.

Zhang came from southeastern China to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university two months before she was reported missing on June 9, 2017. A professor and several of her classmates told police they were unable to contact her for hours, authorities said.

Investigators were led to Christensen after surveillance cameras in Urbana recorded Zhang getting into a black car which authorities later traced to him, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed with the court by an FBI agent.

Under questioning by investigators, Christensen admitted giving Zhang a ride, but said he dropped her off in a residential area a few blocks from where he picked her up.

Detectives said an examination of Christensen’s cell phone showed he had searched the internet for topics such as “Abduction 101” and how to plan a kidnapping, the affidavit said. While under surveillance by law enforcement, he was also heard explaining how he kidnapped the victim, took her back to his apartment and held her against her will, it said.

In court filings outlining their reasons for seeking the death penalty, prosecutors said Christensen met several of the legal criteria for capital punishment, including murder during the commission of another crime, premeditation, and the crime being “heinous, cruel or depraved.”

Prosecutors also cited “non-statutory aggravating factors” such as the impact on the victim’s family.

“The victim ... was particularly vulnerable due to her small stature and limited ability to communicate in English,” prosecutors said in the filing.