U.S. prosecutors said Friday they would seek the death penalty for a former University of Illinois graduate student charged with kidnapping and killing a visiting scholar from China. 

Brendt A. Christensen, 28, of Champaign, Illinois, is charged with the June 9, 2017, killing and abduction of Yingying Zhang, 26, an international scholar at the university. 

Christensen was arrested and initially charged with one count of kidnapping, but in a superseding indictment handed down in October, a federal grand jury added an additional count of kidnapping resulting in death and two counts of making false statements to FBI agents.

In a Friday filing with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, where Christensen is being tried, prosecutors wrote that “the circumstances of the (offense of kidnapping resulting in death) are such that in the event the defendant is convicted of committing the crime, a sentence of death is justified.” 

Among other aggravating factors justifying the death sentence, prosecutors said “the offense was committed in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse; and, that Christensen committed the offense after substantial planning and premeditation.”

Zhang’s body has not been found.

The decision to seek the death penalty in federal criminal cases rests with the country’s top law enforcement officer, and the Justice Department said the decision in the Christensen case was made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

Christensen’s trial is scheduled for February 27.

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