"Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang," the defense attorney said in his opening statement Wednesday, "and nothing we say or do during this phase of the trial is intended to sidestep or deny" that fact. Zhang was a visiting Chinese researcher at the University of Illinois, the Chicago Tribune reports, and the lawyer said Christensen took her to his apartment in Champaign and killed her in 2017. Christensen could receive the death penalty; the jury hearing the federal case now in Peoria will be asked to vote on that if it convicts him. Answering the question of guilt immediately makes the trial about the other issue. Christensen "is on trial for his life in this case," George Taseff told the court. The parents and boyfriend of Zhang, who was 29, traveled from China for the trial.
Prosecutors portrayed Christensen as infatuated with serial killing. Investigators found that he had visited an online forum with threads such as "Perfect abduction fantasy" and "planning a kidnapping," per CNN. Christensen's girlfriend wore a wire during the investigation, and prosecutors said he told her about the killing as the two participated in a memorial walk for Zhang, per the Tribune. Zhang had missed a bus while on her way to sign an apartment lease when Christensen pulled up alongside her on campus. Police say Christensen lured Zhang into his vehicle then took her home and raped and beat her. The defense described Christensen as a brilliant graduate student troubled by substance abuse issues, a failing marriage, and academic problems. On the day he abducted Zhang, Taseff said, Christensen drank, drove around, and then "did the unthinkable." (Read more Yingying Zhang stories.)