PEORIA – The parents of the Chinese scholar who was kidnapped and killed by a former University of Illinois doctoral student described the loss they feel during testimony Tuesday.
“How am I supposed to carry on living?” said Lifeng Ye, the mother of Yingying Zhang, whose testimony was on video. “I really don’t know how to carry on.”
The testimony was heard by the jury that convicted Brendt Christensen last month in the Zhang’s 2017 death. The same jurors are hearing from witnesses during the penalty phase for Christensen and will decide if he should be given a death sentence.
Zhang’s mother talked about how she will not be able to see her daughter get married to her boyfriend like she had planned.
“My daughter did not get to wear a wedding dress,” she said. “I really wanted to be a grandma.”
Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, cried when shown a photo of her and him at a train station on her way to the U.S. “My life without her will not be complete,” he testified.
Also Tuesday, Xiaolin Hou told jurors that his girlfriend, Zhang, meant “everything” to her family.
“They cannot eat, they cannot sleep,” he said.
He said the only hope the family has left in their lives is that Zhang’s body may be found so they can return with it to China for burial.
“I will never give up hope to find her,” Hou testified, according to The Champaign News-Gazette.
He added that the 26-year-old Zhang was killed four months before they were to wed.
Hou began to speak about Christensen, but because offering an opinion about a defendant, the crime or his punishment is not allowed, defense attorneys objected and asked U.S. District Judge James Shadid to declare a mistrial. Shadid declined, but ordered jurors to disregard that portion of Hou’s testimony.
Earlier in the day, FBI agent Anthony Manganaro testified and repeated much of what he said during the trial before Christensen was convicted. He said Christensen tried to obstruct the investigation, reiterating to jurors the steps that Christensen took to clean his car and apartment after the killing. The agent replayed clips of interviews in which Christensen lied to investigators.
The penalty phase is expected to last several days. It’s not clear if Christensen will take the witness stand.
In opening statements Monday, the defense laid out why it doesn’t think Christensen should be executed. Reminding jurors that Christensen will die in prison, court-appointed attorney Julie Brain portrayed Christensen as a man who struggled with mental health issues for years and who had tried getting help with dealing with homicidal fantasies in the months before killing Zhang.
“What happened next was a four-year battle between Brendt and his demons that little by little, he lost,” Brain told the jury.