PEORIA, Ill. — Convicted killer Brendt Christensen’s father took the stand Wednesday in an effort to save his son’s life, testifying about his son’s childhood night terrors and his love of animals, as well as about his mother’s alcoholism.
“I’m his parent, I have to be here,” Michael Christensen said. “I love him, nothing’s going to stop that.”
Christensen testified for the defense before a jury that will decide whether Brendt Christensen should be executed for the 2017 kidnapping and murder in Champaign-Urbana of Chinese scholar Yingying Zhang or receive life in prison. The same jury found him guilty of the crime last month.
The elder Christensen broke down when asked by defense attorney Elisabeth Pollock if he had anything to say to the family of Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois. As he spoke, Brendt Christensen’s shoulders shook, and he covered his eyes with his hand.
“I’m sorry my son was the cause of their pain,” Michael Christensen said.
Zhang family members are in Peoria for the trial and testified Tuesday but were not in the courtroom for that portion of Michael Christensen’s testimony Wednesday.
“Do you still love him?” Pollock asked.
“Oh God, yeah,” Michael Christensen said.
Christensen, who on occasion referred to Brendt as “Mr. B.,” said he still supports his son and will continue to support him if he’s given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
“A death sentence I could handle, but not the actual death,” Michael Christensen said. “I can’t think about it. He has too much to offer.”
Michael Christensen said that when Brendt was 15 he once jumped 12 feet off a deck, threw himself down some stairs and ran into the street into an oncoming car.
“He didn’t know why, but he knew he was trying to kill himself,” Michael Christensen said.
The night terrors Brendt experienced as a child persisted into adulthood, Michael said.
In a 2016 email to his father, Brendt told of nightmares in which he woke up yelling after seeing “something ominous.” At other times he said he experienced sleep paralysis, where he was semiconscious, couldn’t move and was “terrified and feel like someone is watching me,” his father said.
Michael Christensen also described his ex-wife’s alcoholism, which began when Brendt was in grade school and led to the end of their marriage years later. She sometimes would drink a quart of vodka or gin in a day, he said.
She once took Brendt and his older brother on an all-terrain vehicle and flipped it, Michael Christensen said. She also would drive drunk, often hitting curbs and hitting the garage and the house, he said.
“I could no longer trust her to take care of the kids safely,” he said.
Michael Christensen, who splits his time between Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Minnesota, said he is staying at a campground while attending the trial, which is being held at a federal courthouse in Peoria. He is self-employed and makes $10,000 to $20,000 a year and can’t afford a hotel for a month, he said.
Defense attorneys are presenting dozens of mitigating factors in an attempt to convince the jury that Christensen should be sentenced to life in prison rather than death.
During his cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Nelson asked Michael Christensen about a phone conversation of July 4, 2017, days after his son’s arrest in connection with Zhang’s disappearance.
“Did you tell your son when he was exonerated you were going to find Yingying’s father and tell him he should be ashamed of himself?” Nelson asked.
Christensen said he was aware there was a widely held presumption that his son was guilty and acknowledged he would have said something to Zhang’s father and other people who assumed Brendt Christensen’s guilt if he was exonerated. He denied saying he would “find him,” and a recording of the call was not played in court during his testimony.
Also testifying was Brendt’s uncle, Mark Christensen, who said several family members, including himself, are alcoholics. He said he has not seen Brendt, 30, since he was 12 years old but called him a “happy-go-lucky kid that always had a smile on his face.”
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Mark Christensen called it “horrendous” and “a travesty” when asked for his thoughts about the crime.
“I feel terrible for her family,” he said. “It’s unimaginable. It’s unimaginable. It’s not Brendt. I don’t know what happened.”
Also on Wednesday, defense attorneys made a motion for a mistrial related to a juror abruptly leaving the courtroom crying Tuesday, while Zhang’s mother’s recorded video testimony was playing. Pollock said the juror’s behavior could have influenced other jurors.
U.S. District Judge James Shadid denied the motion for a mistrial and declined to dismiss the juror who left Tuesday.
Testimony was continuing Wednesday afternoon, with defense attorneys expecting to call Christensen’s first-grade teacher, a childhood friend and a friend of his mother’s.
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