CHICAGO: A US jury was set to begin hearing testimony Wednesday in the death penalty trial of a former graduate student accused of kidnapping a visiting Chinese scholar who went missing two years ago.
At the time of her disappearance, Zhang Yingying was conducting research at the University of Illinois, where the accused, Brendt Christensen, was a student and instructor.
Zhang was last seen getting into Christensen’s car in June of 2017, and has not been heard from since. Police believe the woman, who was 26 at the time, is dead.
Christensen is standing trial in a federal courtroom in Peoria, 160 miles (260 km) southwest of Chicago, where attorneys are scheduled to make opening statements.
After more than a week of questioning, prosecutors and defense attorneys on Tuesday agreed on a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates picked from a pool of hundreds to hear the case.
The trial has drawn intense interest within the small college community where the alleged kidnapping took place.
Zhang’s Chinese family traveled to the US after her disappearance and has been seen in court as trial proceedings began.
Prosecutors intended to show the jury secret audio recordings of Christensen allegedly admitting to kidnapping Zhang.
The surveillance recordings feature the 29-year-old “explaining how he kidnapped” Zhang and “held her in his apartment against her will,” according to court documents.
The audio was recorded by Christensen’s then-girlfriend who was working on behalf of authorities, according to media reports.
Prosecutors intend to introduce testimony and evidence at trial that Christensen had expressed interest in serial killers, practiced bondage and sado-masochism and had attempted to arrange a “consensual kidnapping” via a fetishist website, according to a court filing.
They also intended to claim that Christensen had posed as a police officer and attempted to lure someone else into his car earlier on the day that Zhang went missing.
Attorneys representing Zhang’s estate on Friday filed a civil lawsuit against Christensen and two university-employed social workers claiming wrongful death and negligence.
The lawsuit claims Christensen sought help for prescription drug and alcohol abuse, as well as homicidal and suicidal thoughts, and “an obsession with serial killers.”
Social workers allegedly devised a treatment plan but did not alert the university that Christensen was a potential threat, according to the lawsuit.