A former University of Illinois doctoral student is facing life in prison for the rape and murder of a 26-year-old scholar from China whom he abducted from a bus stop near campus in 2017, after a federal jury said Thursday that it failed to agree on sentencing him to death. The jurors returned their decision against Brendt Christensen, 30, on their second day of deliberations, the AP reports. 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. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but Christensen was prosecuted under federal law. If he had been sentenced to death, he would have been executed in neighboring Indiana.
Prosecutors said Christensen raped, choked, and stabbed Zhang, who was months away from her planned wedding, before beating her to death with a bat and decapitating her. Christensen has never revealed what he did with Zhang's remains. Her family, who traveled from China to Peoria, Illinois, for the trial, had hoped he might explain in court where he left her, but Christensen's lawyers didn't call him to testify. Christensen's parents took the witness stand, too, and appealed to jurors to spare their son's life. Both said they loved him unconditionally. Michael Christensen said the thought of his son being executed was unbearable, prompting Brendt Christensen to break down crying in a rare display of emotion. Defense attorney Julie Brain told jurors that Christensen had struggled with mental health issues for years and had tried to get help in dealing with homicidal fantasies in the months before killing Zhang. (Much more on the case here.)