Illinois man gets life in prison for killing Chinese scholar


PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — A former University of Illinois doctoral student was sentenced today to life in prison without parole for the 2017 rape and murder of a 26-year-old scholar from China, prompting her family to beg the killer to reveal where her body is so the remains can be returned home.

The jurors returned their decision against Brendt Christensen, 30, on their second day of deliberations. The same jurors took less than 90 minutes to convict Christensen last month in the killing of Yingying Zhang. Prosecutors and Zhang's family had pushed for the death penalty, but a jury decision on that had to be unanimous. If even one juror opposed, then the life sentence was applied.

Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011, but Christensen was prosecuted under federal law. If he had been sentenced to death, he would have been executed in neighboring Indiana.

Prosecutors said Christensen raped, choked and stabbed Zhang before beating her to death with a bat and decapitating her. Christensen has never revealed what he did with Zhang's remains.

Christensen lowered his head and looked back smiling at his mother when he heard that his life would be spared.

Zhang's family said in a statement that they did not agree with the jury's decision to sentence him to life in prison rather than death.

Speaking through an interpreter, her father, Ronggao Zhang, appealed to Christensen to reveal where her body is so that the family can take her remains back to China.

"If you have any humanity left in your soul, please end our torment. Please let us bring Yingying home," Ronggao Zhang said.

The U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois, John Milhiser, said that efforts to find Zhang's remains would continue. As he spoke, Zhang's mother, Lifeng Ye, sobbed and the woman standing next to her appeared to be holding her upright.

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