Closing arguments expected Monday in historic federal death-penalty case

Closing arguments were set for Monday in Illinois’ first federal death-penalty case since the state abolished capital punishment.

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Brendt Christensen | Macon County Sheriff’s Office via AP

Brendt Christensen | Macon County Sheriff’s Office via AP

PEORIA, Ill. — Prosecutors and defense lawyers rested their cases Friday in the trial of a former University of Illinois student who could get the federal death penalty if convicted of killing a scholar from China.

Brendt Christensen told a judge that he understood his right to testify but would remain silent. The News-Gazette reports that closing arguments were set for Monday in federal court in Peoria, Illinois.

This 2016 selfie photo provided by her family shows Yingying Zhang in a cap and gown for her graduate degree in environmental engineering from Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School.

This 2016 selfie photo provided by her family shows Yingying Zhang in a cap and gown for her graduate degree in environmental engineering from Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School.

Family Photo via AP

Christensen’s lawyers have told jurors that he killed Yingying Zhang in 2017, but they dispute some details about why he did it. They’re hoping they can persuade the jury to reject a death sentence if he’s convicted.

Defense lawyers called his ex-wife, Michelle Zortman, as a witness. She told jurors that Christensen showed her a blood stain on a mattress and claimed it was from a bloody nose.

Zortman acknowledged that she stays in contact with him because “he was the biggest person in my life for most of a decade.”

Jurors also watched a video of Christensen during a counseling session in March 2017, a few months before Zhang disappeared. He said he gets little sleep, doesn’t have friends and spends his time with his wife. He talked about his interest in serial killers, especially Ted Bundy.

”I do not see a path from where I’m in,” said Christensen, who didn’t get a doctorate degree. “Maybe it will appear one day.”

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