Jury selected in trial of man accused of killing missing Chinese scholar

PEORIA, Ill. — A jury was selected Tuesday in the trial of a former graduate student accused of kidnapping and killing a University of Illinois scholar from China.

Brendt Christensen, 29, was charged in the 2017 death of Yingying Zhang, 26. Her body was never found, but she is presumed dead.

Jury selection began June 3 in Peoria, and wrapped up Tuesday. Opening statements are expected Wednesday.

The case is rare instance of the U.S. Justice Department 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.

If the jury convicts Christensen, he will become the first federal defendant given capital punishment in Illinois in nearly 15 years.

The Justice Department cited evidence that Christensen tortured Zhang after taking advantage of the 26-year-old woman's small size and lack of English-speaking skills to lure her into his car.

Ronggao Zhang and Lifeng Ye arrived from China last week with their son.

Zhang went missing June 9, 2017. Her disappearance sent shockwaves through the Urbana-Champaign campus. Her body was never found.

Investigators said Zhang was on her way to sign a lease at an Urbana apartment building and that while she waited for a bus, Christensen lured her to his car.

She was seen on surveillance video speaking to the driver of a black Saturn Astra, like his, before getting into the front passenger seat. That was the last time she was seen.

Christensen was a Ph.D candidate at the university and was a popular instructor with no criminal record. However, investigators said they found that he visited fetish websites, with a focus on abduction.

Central to the government’s case will be the words of Christensen’s girlfriend, who was identified in court documents only as “T.B.” She wore a wire for the FBI and recorded conversations federal agents said are very incriminating.

The defendant’s lawyers are already painting her as heavily-medicated, mentally unstable and an unreliable witness.

The trial is expected to last less than two weeks.

WATCH: Surveillance video captures Yingying Zhang right before her disappearance. Note: Video is from 2017.

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