CHICAGO (CBS) —Brendt Christensen, the former University of Illinois student who confessed to killing Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, 26, was sentenced to life in prison for her murder.
The jury was unable to make a unanimous decision, so the court imposed a life sentence.
“He will spend the rest of his life in prison and he will die in prison,” said U.S. attorney John C. Milhiser.
While Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, Christensen was charged in federal court, which made him eligible for a death penalty case.
The jurors returned their decision against Christensen, 30, on their second day of deliberations.
The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen last month in the killing of Yingying Zhang. Prosecutors and Zhang’s family had pushed for the death penalty , but a jury decision on that had to be unanimous. If even one juror opposed, then the life sentence was applied.
“The result today seemed to encourage people to do crimes,” said Xiaolin Hou, Zhang’s fiancé.
If he had been sentenced to death, he would have been executed in neighboring Indiana.
The jury in Christensen’s case deliberated for more than eight hours between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday afternoon before sentencing him.
Christensen was convicted last month of kidnapping and brutally killing Zhang in 2017.
During his trial, federal prosecutors told jurors in grisly detail what authorities believe happened to Zhang in June of 2017.
Prosecutors told the jury Christensen posed as an undercover officer to lure 26-year-old Zhang into his car on June 9, 2017, as she headed to sign a lease off campus.
Christensen, who is over 6 feet tall, took Zhang to his apartment where he raped, choked, and stabbed her in his bedroom, as the 5-foot-4 Zhang tried to fight him off, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said. Christensen then dragged Zhang into his bathroom, and pummeled her in the head with the bat before decapitating her.
The former University of Illinois doctoral student bought Drano and garbage bags three days after the slaying. It wasn’t immediately clear what Christensen is alleged to have done with the garbage bags — or the Drano. The liquid commonly used for unclogging sinks, tubs and other drains contains sodium hydroxide or lye, which can be used for dissolving organic matter.
In June, a jury took less than two hours to find Christensen guilty on three counts in connection to Zhang’s death: kidnapping resulting in a death and two counts of lying to investigators.
Among the most poignant testimony during the penalty phase was from Zhang’s mother, Lifeng Ye. She told jurors how the family was devastated by the loss of her beloved daughter, who had aspired to become a professor and to help her working class family financially.
At a news conference following the verdict, Zhang’s mother broke down crying as her father read a statement in Chinese:
“We cannot imagine living our lives without her,” he said, according to an English translation of the statement.
During the penalty phase of the trial, Zhang’s mother testified about how she will not be able to see her daughter get married to her boyfriend like she had planned.
“My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress,” she said. “I really wanted to be a grandma.”
Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, cried when shown a photo of her and him at a train station on her way to the United States. “My life without her will not be complete,” he testified.
Zhang’s boyfriend told the federal jury about the devastation of the woman’s family. Xiaolin Hou said Zhang’s mother cries almost daily.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Nelson, on the first day of the penalty phase, told the jury about how Christensen not only brutally killed Yingying Zhang in June 2017, he hid her body and has deprived her family the chance to give her a proper burial in China. He said “there will be no closure” for the family.
Her body has never been found.
Yingying’s father, Ronggao Zhang, said through a translator on Thursday: “We ask the defendant to unconditionally tell us what he knows about Yingying’s location. If you have any humanity left in your soul, please end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home.”
The trial was moved to Peoria in central Illinois after Christensen’s lawyers said pretrial publicity would have made it impossible for the 29-year-old former physics student to get a fair trial in the Champaign area, where the 45,000-student university is located.
During the trial, Christensen’s former girlfriend, Terra Bullis, spent hours on the stand, testifying that Christensen borrowed her phone while the two attended a memorial walk for Zhang, typed the words “It was me. She was number 13. She is gone. Forever,” and then deleted them.
Bullis also said Christensen told her the crowd that night was there for him.
Christensen didn’t realize she was wearing a wire for the FBI, who had begun investigating him for Zhang’s disappearance.
Later that night, on the walk home, Christensen is heard on tape describing in graphic detail how he raped and killed Zhang.
Christensen was arrested the next day.
Defense attorneys have admitted that Christensen kidnapped and killed Zhang but have disputed some of the evidence and have tried to paint Christensen as a man with mental health and alcohol problems who does not deserve the death penalty.
Earlier this month his father Michael Christensen took the stand and broke down in tears at the thought of his son being put to death and said his son Brendt “had too much to offer.”
Defense attorneys also called on Brendt’s uncle Mark Christensen in an effort to show that a family history of alcoholism may have contributed to Brendt’s own problems. Defense attorneys also highlighted that Christensen’s own mother and several other direct relatives were alcoholics.
Christensen confessed to University of Illinois counselors months before the 2017 murder that his own drinking drove him to a dark place.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.