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Trial Set To Start For Man Accused Of Yingying Zhang Kidnapping-Murder

Tanya Koonce/Illinois Public Media
Entrance to the Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in downtown Peoria, where the Brendt Christensen trial is being held.

Opening statements begin Wednesday morning in Peoria in the federal capital murder trial of Brent Christensen, charged in connection with the disappearance of Yingying Zhang.

The former graduate student is accused of kidnapping and killing  Zhang, a visiting scholar from China at the University of Illinois Urbana campus in 2017. Prosecutors believe the 26-year-old Zhang was kidnapped, tortured and killed, but her body has not been found. They say Christensen, 29, told the FBI that he let Zhang out a few blocks away.

The trial is expected to take about two weeks, before a jury of seven men and five women, plus six alternates (four men and two women). Jury selection was completed on Tuesday.

The jurors will not be sequestered, but U.S. District Judge James Shadid has instructed them not to talk about the case or consume news stories related to it.

If Christensen is found guilty, Judge Shadid says he expects the sentencing portion of the trial to begin July 8th.

Prosecutors have said that in the case of a guilty verdict, they plan to seek the death penalty for Christensen, which is allowed in federal cases of murder committed during a kidnapping. If the death penalty is not supported by the entire jury, Christensen would be sentenced to life in prison.

The Christensen trial was moved from Urbana to Peoria, in the wake of extensive pre-trial publicity, both locally and in news coverage aimed at Chinese populations around the world. A tree near the bus stop where Yingying Zhang was last seen has become the site of impromptu memorials. And a small memorial garden was installed at the site last year.

Story source: WILL

Tanya Koonce is the News Director at Peoria Public Radio. She has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism from Eastern Illinois University, and a M.A. in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield. Tanya started her news career in TV, managed two political campaigns after college, worked in state government and did some state association work before going back to school. Post master’s degree, she’s worked in commercial radio and operated her own freelance agency before taking a reporter position at WCBU in 2001, and becoming news director in 2008. She’s currently serving as the Treasurer of the Illinois News Broadcaster’s Association, lives in Peoria and loves discovering interesting people, places and things.