June 3, 2019 / 10:13 AM / 2 months ago

Jury selection set in death penalty case of Illinois man charged with murdering Chinese scholar

(Reuters) - Jury selection is set to start on Monday for the trial of an Illinois man charged with kidnapping and murdering a visiting Chinese scholar two years ago, in a case where federal prosecutors say they intend to seek the death penalty.

Brendt Christensen, 28, arrested in connection with the disappearance of Yingying Zhang, 26, on June 9, 2017, is shown in this booking photo in Champaign, Illinois, U.S., provided July 5, 2017. Macon County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS/Files

Brendt Christensen, 29, has been held without bond since his arrest in June 2017 for the abduction and presumed slaying of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student Yingying Zhang, 26, whose body has not been found.

Christensen, a onetime master’s student at the university, has been charged with murder, kidnapping and lying to federal investigators. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Jury selection is scheduled to start Monday in U.S. District Court in Peoria, Illinois, and is expected to take a week.

Zhang came from southeastern China to study photosynthesis and crop production at the university two months before she was reported missing on June 9, 2017. A professor and several of her classmates told police they were unable to contact her for hours, authorities said.

Investigators were led to Christensen after surveillance cameras in Urbana recorded Zhang getting into a black car which authorities later traced to him, according to an arrest warrant affidavit filed with the court by an FBI agent.

Under questioning by investigators, Christensen admitted giving Zhang a ride, but said he dropped her off in a residential area a few blocks from where he picked her up.

Detectives said an examination of Christensen’s cell phone showed he had searched the internet for topics such as “Abduction 101” and how to plan a kidnapping, the affidavit said. While under surveillance by law enforcement, he was also heard explaining how he kidnapped the victim, took her back to his apartment and held her against her will, it said.

In court filings outlining their reasons for seeking the death penalty, prosecutors said Christensen met several of the legal criteria for capital punishment, including murder during the commission of another crime, premeditation, and the crime being “heinous, cruel or depraved.”

Prosecutors also cited “non-statutory aggravating factors” such as the impact on the victim’s family.

“The victim ... was particularly vulnerable due to her small stature and limited ability to communicate in English,” prosecutors said in the filing.

Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Diane Craft

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