UPDATE: Feds to seek death penalty in Christensen case

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URBANA — Federal prosecutors said Friday they intend to seek the death penalty for accused kidnapper Brendt Christensen, 28, of Champaign.

The notice of intent was filed following the decision and directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Christensen is charged with the kidnapping resulting in death of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang, 26, of Urbana, on June 9, 2017.

The government said that the circumstances of the offense are such that, in the event of a conviction, that a death sentence is justified.

Ms. Zhang’s family in China reacted through Urbana attorney Steve Beckett.

“Yingying Zhang’s family today received word of the recommendation and order of the attorney general. They express appreciation and respect for the process, including consideration of the family’s wishes in arriving at the decision to seek the death penalty in this case,” he said.

“The tragedy of the brutal crime that has harmed their daughter demands the greatest, ultimate punishment. The family’s foremost wish has always been to find Yingying and return her home,” said Beckett.

Knowing that there was likely going to be a decision on the death penalty this week, Beckett said he’s been in close communication with the family and the U.S. Attorney’s office. He relayed the information to the family Friday prior to its public release.

“It’s bad,” Beckett said of their reaction.

“They are very, very emotional. They wanted their daughter to come home and if not, they want her remains to come home. So far, they’ve had nothing,” he said.

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The superseding indictment returned against Christensen in October alleges that he held Miss Zhang on June 9 and used a cellphone and Saturn Astra motor vehicle, both instruments of interstate commerce, to commit the crimes.

The notice to seek a sentence of death includes intent factors that allege Christensen acted with intent against the victim and that his intentional acts of violence resulted in her death.

Statutory aggravating factors include that Miss Zhang’s death occurred during the commission of a kidnapping; that the offense was committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse; and, that Christensen committed the offense after substantial planning and premeditation.

The notice also alleges non-statutory aggravating factors including victim impact evidence related to Miss Zhang’s loss and the impact of her death upon her family, friends and co-workers; the future dangerousness of the defendant; his lack of remorse; other serious acts of violence allegedly committed by Christensen; the vulnerability of the victim due to her small stature and limited ability to communicate in English; and, the defendant’s alleged attempt to obstruct the investigation by making false statements to investigators, destroying or concealing the victim’s remains, and sanitizing the crime scene.

Christensen was arrested June 30 and has been in custody since. His trial is set for Feb. 27.

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