Last month Christensen was found guilty of kidnapping and killing Zhang who went missing on June 9, 2017.
On Thursday at the Peoria Federal Courthouse in Illinois, the jury had to decide whether Christensen would spend the rest of his life behind bars without parole or sentence him to death.
After more than eight hours of deliberation, the jury announced it could not reach a unanimous decision, which resulted in the lesser sentence of life imprisonment being imposed.
Christensen looked relaxed upon hearing the verdict. His parents appeared satisfied with their son’s life being spared, but left the court without comment. Zhang’s parents did not attend the courtroom to hear the verdict.
In a press conference held after the sentencing, Zhang Yingying’s father Zhang Ronggao said the family’s pain will continue. He made an emotional appeal to the killer to disclose the location of his daughter’s remains, while Zhang’s mother cried uncontrollably.
“The jury has made the decision and the trial is over. To the defendant, if you have any humanity left in your soul, please help end our torment, please help us bring Yingying home,” said Zhang Ronggao.
Xiaolin Hou, Zhang Yingying’s boyfriend, said he would never accept the outcome of Christensen’s sentencing.
“The result today seems to encourage people to do crimes. And me, myself, will never agree with that,” he said.
The U.S. state of Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011. But as the case was being tried in a federal court, a death sentence could still be imposed but only if jurors unanimously agreed.
John Milhiser, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, believes the prosecution’s calls for a death penalty were appropriate given the severity of the crime and the unimaginable cruelty of the defendant.
“We would not have asked for the death penalty, if we did not believe it was appropriate, given the facts in this case, given what this defendant did to Yingying,” said Milhiser.