Government Files Intent to Seek Death Penalty Against Champaign Man Charged with Kidnapping, Death of Yingying Zhang

URBANA, Ill. – The government today filed its notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Brendt A. Christensen, 28, of Champaign, Ill. Christensen is charged with the kidnapping resulting in death of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang on June 9, 2017.

Yingying Zhang, a visiting Chinese scholar (image credit: University of Illinois PD)

 The filing, a copy of which is attached, follows the decision and directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to seek the death penalty against Christensen.


In seeking a sentence of death, the government states that the circumstances of the offense of kidnapping resulting in death, as charged in count one of the superseding indictment returned on Oct. 3, 2017, are such that, in the event the defendant is convicted of committing the crime, a sentence of death is justified.  


The superseding indictment returned against Christensen alleges that he held Yingying Zhang, identified as Y.Z. in court filings, on June 9, 2017, and that he used a cellular telephone and Saturn Astra motor vehicle, both instruments of interstate commerce, to commit and in furtherance of the commission of the offense; and, that the kidnapping resulted in the death of Zhang.


The notice to seek a sentence of death includes intent factors that allege Christensen acted with intent against the victim, Y.Z.; and that his intentional acts of violence resulted in the victim’s death. The notice sets forth statutory aggravating factors including that Y.Z.’s death occurred during the commission of a kidnapping; that the offense was committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse; and, that Christensen committed the offense after substantial planning and premeditation.


In addition, the notice alleges non-statutory aggravating factors that were not previously asserted,  including victim impact evidence related to Y.Z.’s loss and the impact of her death upon her family, friends, and co-workers; the future dangerousness of the defendant; his lack of remorse; other serious acts of violence allegedly committed by Christensen; the vulnerability of the victim, Y.Z., due to her small stature and limited ability to communicate in English; and, the defendant’s alleged attempt to obstruct the investigation by making false statements to investigators, destroying or concealing the victim’s remains, and sanitizing the crime scene.


Christensen was arrested and charged by criminal complaint on June 30, 2017. On July 5, U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric I. Long ordered that Christensen remain detained in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service pending trial.