This post has been updated to correct the year that the murder occurred.
A divided jury in Peoria today rejected the death penalty for Brendt A. Christensen, consigning him instead to life in prison for the 2017 kidnapping and murder of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, a University of Illinois researcher from China.
The outcome shows how ill-advised it was for federal prosecutors to usurp state jurisdiction in a case where there was no compelling federal interest.
The feds big-footed Illinois in the Christensen case for no reason other than that the death penalty was off the table in the state—where it was abolished in 2011.
While there is overlapping federal-state jurisdiction in many criminal cases, the feds ought to be bound by common sense, if by nothing else, to defer to states in all prosecutions absent some compelling federal interest.
The most recent previous federal death penalty case brought in Illinois involved the murder of a federal witness against a Chicago podiatrist accused of Medicare fraud. The defendant in that case, Ronald Mikos, was sentenced to death in 2005.
That 14 years later Mikos remains years away from execution illustrates that federal capital cases are largely exercises in futility—but in his case, at least, there was a clear federal interest.
Not so in the Christiansen case.
The jury’s decision will save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, that it would have cost as appeals of a death sentence in his case meandered through the courts for years.
Had he been sentenced to death, the 29-year-old Christensen would have joined Mikos and 60 other condemned prisoners on federal death row—three of whom have been there more than a quarter of a century.
If Christensen dwelt on death row as long as those three already have, he would be 55 years old—and no doubt a quite different person than the deranged young man who killed Yingying Zhang.
The Peoria jury and Christensen’s legal team are to be congratulated on the outcome.
We can only hope that the federal prosecutors and their superiors in Washington learn from the experience.
Rob Warden is co-founder of Injustice Watch.