By MICHAEL TARM AP Legal Affairs Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — Opening statements are set for Wednesday in the death-penalty trial of a former University of Illinois graduate student charged with kidnapping, torturing and killing a visiting Chinese scholar, a case closely watched by Chinese students across the U.S.
A federal judge moved the trial to Peoria in central Illinois after Brendt 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. The university has more than 5,000 Chinese students, among the largest such enrollments in the nation.
Prosecutors were expected to call their first witnesses after opening statements, scheduled for 9 a.m. CDT.
They allege Christensen, taking advantage of Yingying Zhang’s small stature and lack of English fluency, lured the 26-year-old into his car in June 9, 2017. She had just missed a bus on her way to sign an apartment lease off campus in Champaign’s sister city Urbana, 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
Although prosecutors haven’t indicated how they believe Christensen killed Zhang, they’ve said they’ll introduce evidence of bloodstains in his apartment bedroom and a baseball bat recovered from the room.
The final selection of 12 jurors and six alternates happened Tuesday. Those who categorically oppose capital punishment or believe it should be imposed on someone convicted of killing without expectation can’t serve as jurors in federal death-penalty trials, and weeding them out extended jury selection to more than a week.
If Christensen is convicted, there will then be a death-penalty phase where jurors would decide if Christensen should be executed.
The federal death-penalty case is the first in Illinois since the state struck capital punishment from its books on grounds death-penalty processes were too error-prone. Some Illinois anti-death penalty activists criticized what they said was the federal government’s imposition of a death-penalty case on a non-death penalty state.
The disappearance of Zhang, the daughter of working-class parents in China who aspired to become a professor, prompted a massive search. Zhang’s parents travelled from China to join the search.
Christensen was arrested on June 30, his birthday, after his girlfriend wore a wire for the FBI in a bid to capture incriminating statements by Christensen. He later pleaded not guilty to kidnapping resulting in death. The girlfriend is expected to be the government’s star witness.
Zhang’s body was never found and one challenge for prosecutors is to prove to jurors she is dead. That could include evidence of her blood in Christensen’s apartment and a cadaver-sniffing dog that indicated a dead body had been there.
Zhang’s parents, her brother and boyfriend are in Illinois for the trial. They watched part of the jury selection process in Peoria and some days watching via a closed-circuit TV at a federal courthouse in Urbana.