CHICAGO – A perplexed prospective juror at the trial of a former graduate student charged with kidnapping and killing a University of Illinois scholar from China said during jury selection last week that she didn’t understand how a conviction could carry the death penalty in Illinois when the state struck capital punishment from its statutes years ago.
The judge explained that Brendt Christensen’s case is a rare instance of the U.S. Department of Justice seeking the death penalty in one of the more than 20 states that doesn’t have capital punishment, drawing on U.S. laws that allow executions by federal authorities for exceptional crimes.
Christensen’s is the first federal death-penalty trial in Illinois since it abolished capital punishment in 2011, dismaying activists who fought to end executions in the state. They fear it’s the start of a trend under President Donald Trump – a blunt death-penalty proponent – of more such trials, more often in states with no death penalty on their books.
“It’s pretty outrageous when the federal government is essentially imposing capital punishment on a state that abolished it,” Rob Warden, a leader in the 2000s of Illinois’ anti-death penalty movement, said about the Christensen trial. “It’s absolutely morally offensive and indefensible.”
Jury selection in Peoria is expected to wrap up Tuesday, with opening statements slated for Wednesday.
Despite past success, anti-capital punishment activists in Illinois are no longer positioned well to mount protests. Many shifted to other causes. And the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a main umbrella group in the movement, has been disbanded in Illinois.
Former Gov. George Ryan, who took the first step toward abolishing the state’s death penalty by placing a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000, a year after the state’s last execution, said the federal decision to hold a death penalty trial in Illinois subverted the will of the majority of the residents.
“I think it’s a bad idea, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Ryan told The Associated Press in a phone interview this week. “The only thing that we can do is to get the federal government to abolish the death penalty.”
He said he opposes the death penalty on the grounds it’s impossible to ensure innocent people will never be put to death.
In notifying the court last year of the decision to seek the death penalty, the Justice Department cited evidence that Christensen, now 29, tortured Yingying Zhang after taking advantage of the 26-year-old woman’s small size and lack of fluent English-speaking skills to lure her into his car as she headed to sign an apartment lease off campus. Her body was never found.
Her disappearance in June 2017 in Urbana and the arrest weeks later of Christensen, who studied physics, shocked Chinese students nationwide. U of I, based in Champaign, has one of the largest populations of Chinese students in the country, with over 5,000 enrolled.
Justice Department protocols call for victims’ families to be consulted on whether they think the death penalty should be pursued. It’s not clear if officials had such a conversation with Zhang’s family.
“I cannot believe there is such an evil person among us in this world,” her father, Ronggao Zhang, said of Christensen in a recent interview with ABC News. “I think he should definitely get the death penalty.”
Chicago defense attorneys say they notice the U.S. attorney’s office considering the death penalty more for street gang members in racketeering cases involving killings. The Justice Department is expected to decide soon whether to seek it in the case of gang members from Chicago’s Four Corner Hustlers who are accused of carrying out killings to maintain an illegal drug trade.
Federal death-penalty cases have risen under Trump after a near-moratorium during President Barack Obama’s last term. The Justice Department approved at least a dozen death penalty prosecutions during Trump’s first two years, according to October data from the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel.
Recent data wasn’t available. But Robert Dunham, the executive director of Washington’s Death Penalty Information Center, says all signs are the trend of more federal death-penalty cases will continue even as cases are decreasing in states with capital punishment. He added: “It’s making the federal government an outlier.”
Homicide charges nearly always come from state authorities, except in a short list of cases including killings during terrorist attacks, bank robberies and kidnappings. Illinois could have charged Christensen under state murder and kidnapping laws, which carry maximum life sentences.
Christensen’s lawyers asked Judge James Shadid to declare the federal decision to seek the death penalty for an Illinois resident unconstitutional, including because it would force jurors from Illinois into “the painful duty of determining whether another human being lives or dies.” Shadid refused.
Federal death-penalty trials in states without capital punishment laws are rare historically.
Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death at a 2015 federal trial in Massachusetts, which abolished capital punishment in 1984. Marvin Gabrion was sentenced to death in a 2002 federal trial in Michigan for killing a woman he was earlier charged with raping even though Michigan became one of the first places in the English-speaking world to end death as a punishment 173 years ago.
Federal death row currently has 62 inmates on it. Four were tried in states without the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. More than 2,500 inmates are on death row in states, the center said.
Just because a prisoner is on federal death row doesn’t necessarily mean the person will die, at least not soon. Appeals can delay executions by decades. Tsarnaev and Gabrion also remain on death row.
Since 1988, there have only been three federal executions – all by lethal injection in Terre Haute, Indiana, between 2001 and 2003. States have executed nearly 1,500 inmates since 1976.
Louis Jones was the last person on federal death row to be executed after his conviction for kidnapping resulting in death – the same charge Christensen has pleaded not guilty to.