PEORIA, Ill. -- Before a word of testimony was heard, any questions about Brendt Christensen's guilt in the abduction and murder of a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois were answered.
"Brendt Christensen is responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang," defense attorney George Taseff said Wednesday in his opening statement to jurors in a Peoria federal courtroom. "Brendt Christensen killed Yingying Zhang, and nothing we say or do during this phase of the trial is intended to sidestep or deny that Brendt Christensen was responsible for the death of Yingying Zhang."
Christensen, 29, faces the death penalty if he's convicted of abducting and murdering Zhang, a visiting researcher at the university's Urbana-Champaign campus. Taseff told the jury that Christensen "is on trial for his life in this case," indicating his efforts will focus on sentencing.
If Christensen is found guilty in Zhang's 2017 disappearance, a second phase will begin and the same jury will be asked to decide on the death penalty. Capital punishment was abolished in Illinois state courts in 2011 but remains an option in federal court.
In their opening statement, prosecutors alleged that Christensen was captured on tape bragging that Zhang was his 13th victim, though they gave no indication there was any credence to the claim. They described Christensen as a man who had become infatuated with serial killers and had plotted a kidnapping and killing in the months before he lured the 26-year-old Zhang into his vehicle on the university campus.
As the investigation gained steam, Christensen's then-girlfriend wore a wire for the FBI. In one recording, Christensen described in detail how he had choked Zhang, split her head open with a baseball bat and then decapitated her, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller told jurors.
"He claimed they will never find her," Miller said after recounting the grisly details of Zhang's death.
During a recording made as Christensen and the girlfriend took part in a memorial walk for Zhang in late June 2017, he said Zhang was his 13th victim and "bragged" that the last serial killer "at his level was Ted Bundy," Miller said.
Taseff cast doubt on those claims, saying his client was drunk at the time and noting there is no evidence linking Christensen to other killings.
"The evidence is going to show that's just false," Taseff said. "It's not just false, there is no way that can be proven."