Defense lawyer admits Brendt Christensen kidnapped, killed Chinese visiting scholar

The defense attorney for Brendt Christensen admitted on Wednesday that the defendant kidnapped and killed Chinese visiting scholar Zhang Yingying in 2017.

The defense attorney for Brendt Christensen admitted on Wednesday that the defendant kidnapped and killed Chinese visiting scholar Zhang Yingying in 2017, during the opening statements in the trial at a federal courthouse in Peoria, US state of Illinois.

The opening statements of the trial started from 9am (1400 GMT), just after the jury was sworn. Media staff and the public took up all the 12 rows of seats in the courtroom.

The families of Zhang Yingying, who had come from China, arrived at the federal courthouse almost half an hour prior to the trial. Christensen, still in his blue shirt, appeared in the court with five defense lawyers.

Before 12 jurors and six alternate jurors — seven females and 11 males, the prosecutors and the defense lawyers made their opening statements, in which they laid out the evidence they planned to present during the trial.

In his 40-minute opening statement, assistant US Attorney Eugene Miller explained the whole progress of the case in detail to the jurors, describing Zhang as a person pursuing her dream in the campus and Christensen a guy pursuing evil when he stabbed Zhang in the neck, cut off her head, then disposed of the remains at an unknown location.

Miller also laid out many pieces of evidence in his statement, which will be supported by witnesses summoned to the court one by one in the following week.

"Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang," said Christensen's defense attorney George Taseff in the defense statement. He said the trial would be an effort to spare Christensen the death penalty.

In nearly 30 minutes, Taseff highlighted the pressure and mental problem Christensen is enduring, saying Christensen is not a monster, but a man struggling with substance abuse, alcohol consumption and mental illness, and a man whose wife was leaving him and who was failing in school.

When Taseff talked about the wife's leaving, Christensen cried.

After the opening statements, the prosecutors summoned three witnesses to testify in the morning session. They include a campus police officer who received the alarm of Zhang's missing, Zhang's boyfriend from China, and the campus bus assistant operation director. The defense did not raise any objections to what the three witnesses said.

Zhang's father and younger brother sat in the courtroom wearing headsets to follow the translation of speeches.

Wang Zhidong, legal advisor to Zhang's family, told Xinhua at the intermission that the most surprising part is the defense frankly admitting Christensen's kidnapping and killing of Zhang. He held it as a strategy by the defense to avoid death penalty.

Wang believes all evidence Prosecutor Miller provided in his statement has their basis, and will be testified by the witnesses in the following week. Based on the fact that the defense did not make any objections and cross inquiries in the morning session, Wang estimates the trial may progress faster than originally expected.

The grief-ridden family can not get over the loss of Zhang and the fact that her whereabout is still unknown. All they want is to bring Zhang back home, Wang said.

Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), went missing on June 9, 2017, after getting into a black Saturn Astra about five blocks from where she got off a bus on her way to an apartment complex to sign a lease.

Police arrested Christensen on June 30, 2017, who was a former UIUC doctoral student and charged him with the kidnapping, torturing and killing of Zhang. He pleaded not guilty.

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