U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday announced that the government will seek the death penalty against Brendt A. Christensen, 28, of Champaign, Illinois, who is charged with the kidnapping and death of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old University of Illinois scholar from China.
The announcement from the US Justice Department stated that Christensen "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 the death penalty also states "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 the impact of her death upon her family, friends, and co-workers; the future dangerousness of the defendant; his lack of remorse; and other serious acts of violence" allegedly committed by him.
It mentions "the vulnerability of the victim 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's trial is slated to begin Feb 27. He has pleaded not guilty. Authorities say Zhang is dead, though her body has never been found.
Christensen was initially charged with kidnapping and pleaded not guilty to that charge in July. A grand jury returned a new indictment on Oct 3 that charged him with kidnapping resulting in death, and of lying to federal agents.
Zhang's family, including her father, mother, brother and boyfriend returned to China on Nov 13, 2017, after about five months in the US looking for Zhang.
The News-Gazette newspaper in Urbana said on Friday that Zhang's family in China reacted through Urbana attorney Steve Beckett.
"Yingying Zhang's family today received word of the recommendation and order of the attorney general. They express appreciation and respect for the process, including consideration of the family's wishes in arriving at the decision to seek the death penalty in this case," he told the newspaper.
"The tragedy of the brutal crime that has harmed their daughter demands the greatest, ultimate punishment. The family's foremost wish has always been to find Yingying and return her home," said Beckett.
Knowing that there was likely going to be a decision on the death penalty this week, Beckett said he's been in close communication with the family and the US Attorney's office. He relayed the information to the family Friday prior to its public release.
"It's bad," Beckett said of their reaction. "They are very, very emotional. They wanted their daughter to come home and if not, they want her remains to come home. So far, they've had nothing."