In my recent appearance on CGTN the Chinese News Station I was asked by the host Liu Xin about the murder case of a Chinese Student Yingying Zhang. Ms. Zhang was a student at University of Illinois where she was murdered by Brendt Christensen. During the first phase of the trial, the defense did not deny that the defendant committed the murder. Instead, the defense's strategy seemed to be focused on the second part of the trial regarding the death penalty.
In a typical criminal case, the jury decides if a person is guilty and a judge decides the punishment. In a death penalty case, the jury decides a person's guilty and if a person deserves to die for his actions. Death penalty cases are divided into two parts. In the first part, the jury decides if the defendant is guilty of the offense of murder. If the defendant is found guilty of murder, then the second part of the trial will occur where the jury must decide if the person should be put to death.
The Christensen jury found him guilty of murder in a matter of hours. That is a fast verdict especially for a murder case. However, it was not a surprise, seeing that the defense really did not argue that he was not the person who committed the murder. Once the jury found him guilty of murder, then the prosecutor and the defense tried to convince the jury how he should be punished.
Ultimately, the the jury reached an unanimous verdict to sentence Christensen to life in prison. This decision has created quite the backlash in China. The question remains if the sentence is fair. While being a guest on the show The Point, the host Liu Xin asked me that question, was the verdict fair.
There are essentially two things that the host was asking me. One being the philosophical question if the death penalty should be allowed, and another if the process itself was fair. I have no answers for the philosophical question regarding the death penalty. There are different views of the death penalty, but statistics have shown that the American people's support for the death penalty has decreased over the years. As a result, many states have banned the death penalty.
No matter how you feel about the death penalty, the process in which the trial was conducted did seem to be a fair. For a trial to be fair, both sides need to be given an opportunity to advocate strongly for their position. Here the court and the judge seemed to allow that process to occur. For some the result may not be fair in their eyes, but the process certainly was.
One thing is for sure, there are many questions that remain, and effects of this case will be lasting. There is an estimate of over 300,000 Chinese students attending universities and colleges in the United States. Whether related to this case is not known, but since the disapearance of Ms. Zhang the numbers of Chinese students began to decrease. After the verdict of no death to the defendant, the number of students could decline even further.