A public defender entered a “not guilty” plea Wednesday for Brendt Christensen, the 28-year-old man accused of kidnapping and killing Yingying Zhang. The brief arraignment hearing before Magistrate Judge Eric I. Long at the federal courthouse in Urbana came after an emotional outburst from Yingying’s mother.
Upset by seeing Christensen for the first time, Lifeng Ye wept and had to be led from the courtroom by other family members.
“Give me my daughter back”, she cried in Mandarin, according to Zhidong Wang, one of the attorneys acting as informal representatives for the family.
The Zhang family has held out hope that Yingying, last seen on June 9, might still be alive. But federal authorities now accuse the 28 year old Christensen of not only kidnapping but inflicting violence that “intentionally” caused the death of the University of Illinois visiting scholar from China. A federal grand jury in Springfield handed down the new charges in a “superseding indictment” on October 3. It has two sentencing options --- life in prison or the death penalty.
Christensen was also arraigned on two charges making false statements to the FBI. The October 3 indictment accuses Christensen of giving two different and false accounts of what he did on June 9, 2017, the day Yingying Zhang was allegedly abducted. Federal prosecutors say Christensen initially told FBI agents that he stayed home that day. The indictment says that a few days later, Christensen told an investigator that he gave a ride to “an Asian female” on that day, but dropped her off in a residential area.
Christensen, who recently received a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, was arrested June 30, and initially indicted on a kidnapping charge. He is being held at the Macon County Jail in Decatur.
Christensen’s original attorneys withdrew from the case when it became clear that he would be facing a charge that carried a possible death sentence, which would bring legal expenses he could not afford. Christensen is now represented in court by federal public defenders, including Elisabeth Pollock, who entered a “not guilty” plea on his behalf Wednesday.
A federal jury trial for Christensen is scheduled to begin February 27th, preceded by a pre-trial conference on February 12th, before U.S. District Judge Colin S. Bruce.