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Convicted Killer Brendt Christensen Could Be Illinois' First Death Sentence in Decades

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The death penalty was abolished in Illinois years ago, but the man convicted of killing a Chinese student at the University of Illinois could still be the first person from Illinois sentenced to death in nearly 15 years.

Twelve jurors are now all that stand between Brendt Christensen and death row, as deliberations begin in the death-penalty phase of his federal trial. Christensen was convicted last month of kidnapping and killing 28-year-old Yingying Zhang in 2017. It took jurors less than two hours to deliberate before reaching a verdict in late June, convicting Christensen on a charge of kidnapping resulting in a death, along with two counts of lying to investigators.

At trial, federal prosecutors described in grisly detail how Christensen, a former doctoral student at the university, allegedly kidnapped Zhang by posing as an undercover officer, and then raped, stabbed, choked, beat, and ultimately decapitated her.

The same jury that convicted Christensen is now deciding whether he should face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of release.

Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, eight years after former Governor George Ryan commuted the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates in 2013. The last person executed in Illinois was the serial killer Andrew Kokoraleis in 1999.

But the death penalty remains legal at the federal level, where Christensen's case was prosecuted.

And while death sentences are rare in federal cases — and executions even rarer  — it's still possible Christensen could be sentenced to die.

If sentenced to death, Christensen would join an exclusive club of just 62 such prisoners nationwide, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a nonprofit that studies capital punishment. Only two people have been executed by the feds since Timothy McVeigh was put to death in 2001, according to DPIC.

Prosecutors argued Christensen has expressed no remorse for killing Zhang — a fact jurors will likely consider during their deliberations. He would face a unique situation as someone sentenced to death in a state without the death penalty — an outcome his family begged jurors to avoid during the trial.

"I am just so sorry that my son was the cause of the pain," Christensen's father, Michael Christensen, said in court during the penalty phase of the trial last week.

According to his father, Brendt Christensen's mother was an extreme alcoholic throughout his childhood; he attempted suicide twice, his father said.

A day before Christen's father took the stand, Zhang's parents testified, bringing jurors, and even Christensen, to tears. They also told the court they'd approve of a death sentence if one was handed down.

Christensen's attorneys have admitted he had abducted and killed Zhang since his trial began, although Zhang's body was never found and Christensen never told investigators what he did with the body.

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