US student convicted in beheading of Chinese scholar

Zhang was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. (University of Illinois Police Department pic)

WASHINGTON: A former graduate student at a US university was found guilty Monday in the kidnapping and gruesome killing of a visiting Chinese scholar.

Brendt Christensen could now face the death penalty, with sentencing hearings due to begin next month.

A federal jury deliberated for less than two hours before convicting the 29-year-old, whose own lawyer admitted during the closely-watched trial that his client was responsible for Zhang Yingying’s death.

Christensen kidnapped Zhang in June 2017 at a bus stop near the University of Illinois campus in Champaign, a small midwestern city surrounded by farmland.

Prosecutors said he lured Zhang into a car before choking and beating her with a baseball bat, stabbing her, and decapitating her body to dispose of it.

Her body has never been found.

Christensen was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death, as well as two charges of lying to the FBI, who investigated the case.

The trial generated enormous interest in the Chinese community in Illinois, and China. Beijing authorities sent consular representatives and the victim’s relatives came from China to attend the hearing.

A large scrum of journalists gathered outside the Peoria, Illinois courthouse Monday as Zhang’s tearful family members read a statement.

Zhang, who was 26, was visiting the University of Illinois to conduct research. Christensen was a graduate student instructor in physics.

The court listened to secret recordings made by an ex-girlfriend of Christensen in which he described in detail how he sexually assaulted and killed Zhang.

But defence lawyers expressed doubts about Christensen’s claims in the FBI recordings, in which he also described Zhang as his thirteenth victim, despite no evidence found to support it.

In closing arguments Monday the defence team said Christensen had struggled with mental health and alcohol issues.

Zhang’s family also filed a civil complaint against the accused and against two university social workers in whom Christensen had confided.

The workers allegedly failed to inform authorities when Christensen mentioned ideas of murder and suicide and “an obsession with serial killers”.