Crime: Why did Brendt Christensen admit he killed Chinese scholar Zhang at U. of I.? It might save his life. - - PressFrom - US
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CrimeWhy did Brendt Christensen admit he killed Chinese scholar Zhang at U. of I.? It might save his life.

22:51  14 june  2019
22:51  14 june  2019 Source:   chicagotribune.com

In opening statement, attorney admits Brendt Christensen abducted, killed Chinese scholar at University of Illinois

In opening statement, attorney admits Brendt Christensen abducted, killed Chinese scholar at University of Illinois Accused killer Brendt Christensen’s attorney acknowledged in court Wednesday that his client took Yingying Zhang to his Champaign apartment and killed the University of Illinois scholar in 2017. “Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang,” attorney George Taseff said in his opening statement in a federal courtroom. “Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang, and nothing we say or do during this phase of the trial is intended to sidestep or deny that Brendt Christensen was responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang.

Why did Brendt Christensen admit he killed Chinese scholar Zhang at U. of I.? It might save his life.© Macon County Sheriff's Office

Lawyers for a former University of Illinois doctoral student accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing a visiting scholar from China spent nearly two years preparing for the day they would address jurors for the first time at trial.

After all that, it took less than a minute for one of the defense attorneys to walk to a podium this week and acknowledge to the jury that their client, Brendt Christensen, did, in fact, carry out the slaying of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang.

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The admission during opening statements of the federal death-penalty trial Wednesday seemed to startle some jurors who minutes earlier had listened to a prosecutor allege that Christensen abducted Zhang off campus and raped, stabbed, choked and beat her with a baseball bat before decapitating her at his Urbana, Illinois, apartment.

Admitting that a defendant is guilty from the outset of a trial is a rare strategy. Here's a closer look at the approach and what Christensen's defense team might be trying to accomplish:

Has Christensen ever denied killing Zhang?

Technically, he has. He entered a not-guilty plea to a federal charge of kidnapping resulting in death after his arrest in June of 2017. However, he and his lawyers have not made what's often a standard after-arrest declaration in homicide cases: The claim that investigators have the wrong man and that he'd be exonerated at trial.

Testimony Resumes After Jurors Hear Brendt Christensen Admit To Killing Yingying Zhang

Testimony Resumes After Jurors Hear Brendt Christensen Admit To Killing Yingying Zhang The federal death penalty trial of a former University of Illinois student accused of killing a visiting Chinese scholar continues on Monday. Brendt Christensen’s defense attorneys are expected to continue their cross-examination of an FBI agent, following explosive recordings of Christensen bragging about killing Yingying Zhang. To this day, no one knows what happened to Zhang’s body, which is exactly what Christensen boasted about in conversations secretly recorded by his girlfriend, who became a paid informant for the FBI a week after Zhang was kidnaped on June 9, 2017. “I won’t tell you where she is.

Among the possible reasons he didn't declare his innocence is that Christensen, now 29, wanted it known that he had chosen a victim at random and killed her. According to prosecutors, Christensen told his girlfriend weeks earlier he aspired to become infamous by killing someone. Denying he killed Zhang would have defeated that goal.

The evidence also seems overwhelming. It includes secret FBI recordings of Christensen that, if prosecutors have characterized them correctly, amount to confessions.

What is the defense thinking!?

Christensen's trial has two phases: The first, the one they're in now, is the verdict phase where jurors are hearing evidence about whether he committed the crime. If they convict him, the death penalty phase would follow.

In the penalty phase, prosecutors would present reasons why Christensen deserves to die. They likely would highlight how they believe Zhang was tortured. The defense would then present reasons why his life should be spared, perhaps calling witnesses to talk about his childhood or struggles with mental illness. All 12 jurors would have to agree Christensen deserves to die. If just one juror holds out against execution, Christensen would face life in prison instead.

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When defense lawyer George Tesseff told jurors Wednesday he would begin his remarks with what he realized was an unusual admission - that "Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang" - he said he was making that admission right away because his client "is on trial for his life." That suggests Christensen's legal team is, in effect, jumping straight into the death penalty phase and will focus its evidence, cross-examinations and arguments on convincing the jury to spare Christensen's life.

So, why not just plead guilty?

Had Christensen entered a guilty plea, a 12-person jury would still have been convened to decide whether he should or shouldn't be executed. Higher courts have determined that only juries, not judges, should determine if aggravating factors justify the death penalty.

By pleading not guilty, the defense forced the two-phase process - the verdict and death penalty phases. That bought them more time to make the case that Christensen's life should be spared, said Robert Dunham, an executive director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

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He speculates that Christensen's lawyers may believe that telling jurors in the verdict phase that Christensen did kill Zhang gives jurors a chance to process the shock of that admission. They may think that at least some jurors won't be as horrified or incensed weeks from now when they have to vote on whether Christensen should live or die.

Are there other advantages to this strategy?

The defense is also likely to use the time accorded them in the verdict stage to seek to show that - in some critical details - prosecutors aren't accurately portraying what happened. In openings, for instance, the defense took issue with the prosecution tossing out the notion Christensen may have killed 12 others before killing Zhang. Tesseff balked at this in his opening. He said there's no evidence of other victims.

"To the extent that the defense can show the prosecution is exaggerating claims to make the crime look worse than it was - that diminishes the power of the aggravating factors prosecutors seek to present in the death penalty phase," Dunham said.

He said the defense potentially could argue later in the death penalty phase that the admission in the verdict phase demonstrated Christensen was accepting responsibility. Acceptance of responsibility is a potential mitigating factor that jurors can consider when they vote on imposing the death penalty.

Tarm is the AP's legal writer

Read More

Former student guilty in slaying of visiting Chinese scholar.
 Jurors deliberated less than 90 minutes before returning a guilty verdict Monday at the federal death-penalty trial of a former University of Illinois doctoral student who killed a visiting scholar from China after abducting her at a bus stop as she headed to sign an off-campus apartment lease. 

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