CHICAGO (CBS) — The death penalty is on the table for kidnapping, rape and murder of University of Illinois student Yingying Zhang. Illinois abolished death sentences in 2011, but the federal government took this case.
The federal government can take over a state murder case if there’s a legal reason granting it jurisdiction, but experts say there might also be political reasons to do so.
Video played at Brendt Christensen’s murder trial shows Zhang getting into his black car before she disappeared. Both that video and his black Saturn are key in taking the case from a state to federal court.
“There has to be something moved in interstate commerce,” said Chicago Kent College of Law Dean Harold Krent.
That’s where the car comes in. Federal prosecutors stated that Saturn was a means of interstate commerce, made outside Illinois and used in the kidnapping and murder, which gave them jurisdiction. Then they made it a death penalty case, the first tried since former Governor Pat Quinn abolished capital punishment nine years ago.
“President Trump has been more aggressive than his predecessors, certainly than President Obama, in picking out cases for possible application of a death penalty,” said Krent. “So this is a growing trend.”
But why this case?
Krent said the reasons could be many, especially considering the international coverage of Zhang’s murder and the thousands of Chinese students at U.S. universities.
“I think this is a way the Trump administration could take the concerns of the Chinese government and the Chinese people much more seriously, by raising the sort of level and attention otherwise given to a state murder case,” Krent said.
Krent said if sentenced to death, Christensen could be executed in Illinois.
There is a federal maximum security prison in Thomson, Illinois. There is also one in Terre Haute, Indiana. That’s where the last person from an Illinois case still sits on federal death row.
His name is Ronald Mikos, and he was convicted of murder in 2005.