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PhD student found guilty of raping and murdering Chinese scholar after kidnapping her from bus stop

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An Illinois jury has found a former PhD student guilty of the kidnap, rape and murder of a visiting Chinese scholar after abducting her from a bus stop.

The Peoria District court heard how Brendt Christensen, 29, beat Yingying Zhang to death with a baseball bat before decapitating her in June 2017.

Christensen lured Ms Zhang into his car by posing as an undercover officer when she was running late to sign an apartment lease.

He forced the 26-year-old into his apartment in Urbana, a city southwest of Chicago, where he raped and killed her.

Yingying Zhang in a cap and gown at Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School before she was killed. (AP)

The defendant looked straight ahead and showed no emotion as a guilty verdict was announced on Monday, after jurors deliberated for less than 90 minutes.

The same jury will then determine if Christensen will be sentenced to death at a later date.

Zhidong Wanb, representing Ms Zhang’s parents announced after the verdict that they had already asked prosecutors to request the capital punishment.

During the trial, Christensen’s former girlfriend, Terra Bullis, testified that he had confessed the murder to her while they attended a vigil for Ms Zhang after she was reported missing.

Her mother Lifeng Ye and brother Zhengyang Zhang arrive at the US Courthouse. (AFP/Getty Images)

Ms Bullis said she agreed to wear a wire for the FBI in order to record the conversations with Christensen

The swift conviction was expected because Christensen’s attorneys acknowledged from the start that he raped and stabbed Yingying Zhang in June 2017 although her body has never been found.

The judge has said there will be a break of a week or more before the penalty phase, a sort of mini-trial that could last several weeks.

Illinois no longer has capital punishment, but he could be sentenced to death because he was convicted in federal court.

Members of the media wait outside the US Courthouse as federal trial of Brendt Christensen. (AFP/Getty Images)

There are more than 5,000 Chinese students of the 45,000 attending the University of Illinois in Champaign, among the largest such enrolments in the nation.

Ms Zhang had been in Illinois for just three months – her only time living outside China.

The daughter of working-class parents, she aspired to become a professor in crop sciences to help her family financially. Friends and family described her as caring and fun-loving.

Elisabeth Pollock, a defence attorney for Christensen, said her client was “someone who lost control … who battled these dark thoughts.”

Yingying Zhang with her parents, Ronggao Zhang, right, and Lifeng Ye, at a train station in Nanping, China (AP)

Prosecutor Eugene Miller told jurors that Christensen abducted a stranger who was “an object for him to fulfil his dark desire – to kill for the sake of killing.”

Jurors heard evidence that Christensen boasted he killed 12 others before killing Zhang, starting when the Stevens Point, Wisconsin, native was 19 and still living in Wisconsin.

He began his studies in Champaign at the university’s prestigious doctoral program in physics in 2013.

His lawyers said he made the claim about being a serial killer when he was drunk and that it’s not true, but the FBI didn’t rule it out.

The federal death-penalty case is the first in Illinois since the state struck capital punishment from its books on grounds death-penalty processes were too error-prone.

Some Illinois anti-death penalty activists criticised what they said was the government’s imposition of a death-penalty case on a non-death penalty state.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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