A US man accused of kidnapping and killing a scholar visiting from China two years ago was obsessed with Ted Bundy and other serial killers, prosecutors said on Wednesday as they shared with jurors grisly details of how the victim was allegedly raped and brutally beaten before her death.
Opening statements began in the federal death-penalty trial of Brendt Christensen, a case closely watched by Chinese students across the US. Christensen is accused of luring 26-year-old Zhang Yingying into his car in June 2017 as she headed to sign a lease off campus.
Christensen abducted Zhang to his apartment where she fought for her life as he hit her over the head with a baseball bat, raped her and stabbed her in the neck before cutting off her head, Eugene Miller, an assistant US attorney for central Illinois, said.
“Her blood ran down the wall,” the prosecutor said, as some of Zhang’s relatives sat in court listening to an interpreter through headsets. “Thousands of miles away from her parents, alone with a stranger, she breathes her last breath.”
Miller said Christensen was obsessed with Bundy, who killed dozens of women in the 1970s, and other serial killers. He had researched online how to abduct someone before buying a very large duffel bag.
Christensen appeared in court wearing a blue shirt, with his hands cuffed behind his back. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
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.
Prosecutors said Christensen was also heard explaining how he kidnapped Zhang while he was under surveillance.
Christensen was arrested on June 30, 2017, his birthday, after his girlfriend wore a wire for the FBI in a bid to capture incriminating statements by him. The girlfriend is expected to be the government’s star witness.
George Taseff, one of Christensen’s defence lawyers, told the jury he did not dispute that Christensen killed Zhang, which he called “a horrible crime”. But Taseff said he took “serious issue” with the government’s account of events.
“You need to know who Brendt was and what he was going through – a downward spiral in his life,” Taseff told the jury as he sought to protect his client from the death penalty. Taseff described Christensen as a man who turned to alcohol and drugs as he struggled with an unhappy open marriage and a painful relationship with a girlfriend.
On the day of the killing, “he hits ground zero, rock bottom”, Taseff said, noting that Christensen had learned that his girlfriend was with another man that morning.
Christensen bought a bottle of rum from a liquor store at about 7.45am before driving around while drinking, Taseff said.
“At 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” Taseff said, “he does the unthinkable.”
Prosecutors were expected to call their first witnesses after opening statements, which began at about 9am
A federal judge moved the trial to Peoria in central Illinois after 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 enrolments in the nation.
The final selection of 12 jurors and six alternates was assembled on Tuesday. Those who categorically oppose capital punishment or believe it should be imposed on someone convicted of killing without expectation cannot serve as jurors in federal death-penalty trials, and weeding them out extended jury selection to more than a week.
If Christensen is convicted, a death-penalty phase will follow in which the 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 the grounds that capital punishment processes were too error-prone. Some Illinois anti-death penalty activists criticised the US government’s pursuit of a death-penalty case in 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.
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 flat 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 have watched via a closed-circuit TV at a federal courthouse in Urbana.
Reuters and Associated Press