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Judge Won't Delay Sentencing For Brendt Christensen In Murder Of Chinese Scholar Yingying Zhang

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (CBS/AP) — A federal judge has denied former University of Illinois doctoral student Brendt Christensen's request to delay sentencing in the kidnapping and murder of visiting Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang.

U.S. District Judge James Shadid issued the ruling Wednesday, and set sentencing to begin on Monday.

Last week, a federal jury found Christensen guilty of Zhang's kidnapping and death in 2017. It took the jury less than two hours to deliberate before convicting Christensen on three counts: kidnapping resulting in a death and two counts of lying to investigators.

The same jury that convicted Christensen will now decide if he'll be sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.

Brendt Christensen Mug
Brendt Christensen. (Courtesy: Macon County Sheriff's Office)

Christensen's lawyers argued that prosecutors turned over a large amount of victim impact videos at the last minute. They said it would take weeks to translate the videos from Chinese to English.

Shadid denied the defense's request to either bar those videos from being presented at sentencing, or delay the sentencing phase. The judge instead told prosecutors to give defense attorneys specific video clips they plan to use at sentencing.

Defense attorneys have admitted that Christensen kidnapped and killed Zhang but have disputed some of the evidence and have tried to paint Christensen as a man with mental health and alcohol problems who does not deserve the death penalty.

In a defense filing after Christensen's convictions, his lawyers revealed he offered after his arrest to divulge where Zhang's remains are in exchange for a life sentence.

Yingying Zhang
Yingying Zhang (FBI)

A statement from Zhang's family, released by their Chicago-based lawyer, Zhidong Wang, said they were made aware of the offer at the time and told prosecutors they wanted "truthful" information from Christensen that would allow them to find the remains and bring them home to China. But they "were leery" of the offer because "he had lied so many times in the past."

"There was no promise that Yingying's remains would be discovered," the statement said.

The defense filing doesn't say whether prosecutors seriously considered withdrawing the death penalty option. The timetable also isn't clear: The defense says Christensen made the offer "within six months" of his June 30, 2017, arrest; prosecutors had raised the possibility of seeking the death penalty by November 2017 and announced in January 2018 that they would seek it.

Law enforcement spent weeks searching for Zhang's body, including at a mine 30 minutes south of the campus in nearby Champaign, but her body was never found.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in central Illinois, Sharon Paul, declined any comment on the defense filing.

Prosecutors have said they won't comment on any aspect of the trial until proceedings are over. In a filing late last week, they suggested it won't ever be possible to recover Zhang's remains.

Prosecutors considered Christensen's offer, broaching it with Zhang's family. But they say the deal was contingent on "locating and recovering" all of Zhang's "identifiable bodily remains." They say the plea talks collapsed when it became clear that wouldn't be possible.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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