Peoria death penalty case is, in a word, nuts

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This post has been updated to correct the year that the murder occurred. 

That the Illinois death penalty was abolished eight years ago hasn’t stopped federal prosecutors from seeking it against Brendt A. Christensen for the 2016 kidnap, rape, and murder of Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old University of Illinois researcher from China.

The so-called Lindberg law, which Congress enacted in 1932 and amended in 2006, authorizes capital punishment for murder-kidnappings involving the use of “any means, facility, or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce”—even if the crime occurred in a state that has abolished capital punishment.

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So there is a legal basis for seeking the death penalty for Christensen, as federal prosecutors have vowed to do next week in Peoria.

Whether that makes sense is a different question.

Zhang’s parents have proclaimed that they want Christensen to pay the ultimate penalty for his unspeakable crime.

Their desire is understandable.

In light of what he admittedly did, Christensen deserves no mercy.

If the parents realized what is in store for them if their daughter’s killer is sentenced to death, however, they might think again.

Assuming that Christensen is sentenced to death, his case can be expected to meander through the appellate process for years—an ordeal likely to take an incalculable emotional toll on Zhang’s loved ones.

It also will inflict a tremendous emotional toll on Christensen’s family members, who have done nothing to deserve it.

Beyond that, and perhaps beyond the concern of the families, it will waste millions of taxpayer dollars—vastly more than it would cost to keep Christensen in prison or a secure mental institution for the rest of his life.

And in the end—after decades of ordeal for the living and millions of dollars down the litigation drain—it is as likely as not that Christensen will outlive the American death penalty.

In the 31 years that the current federal death penalty has been on the books, 75 federal defendants been sentenced to death.

Only three have been executed—the most recent 16 years ago.

Thirteen of those sentenced to die in federal cases have been removed from death row and one is awaiting resentencing, leaving 61 presently awaiting execution.

The average federal death row prisoner already has been there for 13 years—and the clock continues to tick.

Ten of the 61 have been on death row for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, the death penalty falls deeper into disrepute.

Twenty-one states have abolished it, and the governors of four other states have declared moratoria on executions—something that a progressive president of the United States might well do before Brendt Christensen’s execution could be carried out.

The number of state executions plunged from a record high of 98 in 1999 to 25 last year and is on track this year to be lower still.

According to recent news reports, Christensen offered, in exchange for a life sentence, to reveal how and where he disposed of Yingying Zhang’s still-missing body.

As offensive as that suggestion may seem, it might be viewed differently if prosecutors—rather than Christensen—had proposed it.

Prosecutors should forget who proposed it and take the deal—which, even though Zhang’s family would not appreciate it at this moment, surely would spare them years of unnecessarily heightened anguish, as well as save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Pursuing a death sentence, in sum, is simply nuts.

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch.