Life in prison for decapitating classmate

Haiyang Zhu was sentence to life in prison without parole. Photo /  AP

RICHMOND, Virginia – A former Virginia Tech graduate student from China who prosecutors said decapitated a classmate in a campus cafe because she rejected his romantic advances was sentenced to life in prison yesterday.

Montgomery County Circuit Judge Robert Turk sentenced Haiyang Zhu to life without parole, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Brad Finch.

Zhu pleaded guilty in December to first-degree murder in the death of fellow Chinese student Xin Yang. He admitted decapitating the 22-year-old Yang as the pair had coffee at a campus eatery in January 2009.

It appeared Yang, who was from Beijing, had only recently met Zhu of Ningbo, China. Zhu, a doctoral student in agricultural and applied economics, had been helping her adjust to life at Tech.

Zhu’s plea did not qualify for the death penalty under Virginia law.

Finch said he was pleased that the judge imposed the maximum punishment for the “extremely brutal murder.”

Zhu’s attorney, Stephanie Cox, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment. But Zhu apologised at the hearing to the victim’s family and the community, Finch said.

The killing stunned a campus that still had vivid memories of the mass slayings in April 2007, when a student gunman from South Korea killed 32 people and then took his own life. The stabbing was the first slaying on campus since then.

Prosecutors had described in detail a heartbroken Zhu who had had fallen in love with Yang, only to be rebuffed when she told him she had a boyfriend she planned to marry.

At a December plea hearing, Finch cited a letter Zhu wrote while in jail, which said Yang’s rejection “forced him to kill her” because “he loved her too much.”

Finch also described the attack in detail, noting that Yang suffered numerous defensive wounds to her hands and arms as she tried to fend off Zhu. She eventually fell and he severed her head. He was holding it when police arrived.

About seven other people who were in the shop at the time told police the two hadn’t been arguing before the attack.

Corey Cox, a cafe worker in Tech’s Graduate Life Center who witnessed the attack, testified at a preliminary hearing last May that Zhu lunged at Yang and began cutting off her head with a knife.

Cox said Zhu did not appear to be angry, but stared at Yang with “just a really blank, determined look.”

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