BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — BEVERLY — Sajan “Sage” Christensen had a choice to make.
Charged with, and facing trial on, first-degree murder, Christensen, 20, had been offered a deal: Plead guilty to manslaughter in the March 17, 2011, stabbing death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro and receive a sentence of 12 to 15 years, or take his chances with a jury and face up to life in prison without parole if convicted.
During a hearing yesterday before Salem Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead, who wanted to make sure the young man understood the possible outcome of his decision, Christensen was firm: He wanted a trial by jury.
That trial, which could last up to four weeks, is set to get underway today with jury selection in Salem Superior Court.
Christensen’s attorney, Ray Buso, is hoping to convince that jury that Christensen, 18 at the time of the killing, acted in self-defense when he stabbed Vernazzaro, who, though unarmed, was 8 years older, 8 inches taller and weighed nearly twice as much as Christensen.
But Buso’s planned defense could be in jeopardy, after Whitehead yesterday suggested that he’s not convinced that Christensen, who brought a knife to the fight, is entitled to claim self-defense in the case.
“I don’t understand how it’s self-defense,” said Whitehead, “when they (Christensen and co-defendant Adam Martin, who brought a bat) injected into the transaction the deadly force.”
Massachusetts courts have held that individuals have a duty to try to retreat from a situation before resorting to the use of force.
Whitehead said he would make a decision by today on whether jurors will be allowed to consider self-defense in the case.
Prosecutors allege that Christensen, then 18, and Martin, then 17, agreed to a fight with Vernazzaro, 26, a Beverly man, in Balch Park, then armed themselves, Christensen with the knife and Martin with the bat.
Vernazzaro, who moments before the fight had taken off his shirt, died from a stab wound to the heart, prosecutors said during a hearing last week. It was one of five stab or slash wounds to Vernazzaro, who was also struck at least twice with the aluminum bat.
Martin, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter last week and accepted the 12- to 15-year sentence from Whitehead, and Christensen were teenagers aging out of the foster care system and living at Blaine House, a residential program nearby, along with a third teen, Melissa Hicks, then 17. Hicks and Christensen had once dated and remained good friends.
Hicks is facing a separate trial on charges that she acted as an accessory after the killing.
On the day of the killing, Vernazzaro had called Hicks, touching off a series of exchanges that led to the challenge to fight, prosecutors say.
Prosecutor Kristen Buxton argued that by Buso’s logic, any time a larger person was killed by a smaller one with a weapon, the smaller person could claim self-defense.
And when Buso suggested that in a fight “between a 300-pound man and a 75-pound woman, wouldn’t the woman be entitled to use a knife to defend herself?”
“If she approached him with a knife, she’s got a (legal) problem,” the judge responded.
Buso suggested “there have to be circumstances where the vastly superior size” of an alleged victim ought to be taken into account.
The dynamics of the situation changed when Vernazzaro got control of the bat from Martin, Buso said.
Buso is also seeking to admit evidence of past assault charges against Vernazzaro, as well as information about his involvement in amateur wrestling, information Buxton suggested was not only old, but irrelevant to what happened the night of the killing.
Christensen, who is expected to take the stand, brought the knife and displayed it in hopes that it would deter Vernazzaro from fighting, Buso told the judge.
During his questioning by police shortly after the incident, Christensen insisted that he never stabbed Vernazzaro, suggesting that the fatal wound came from the bigger man falling on Christensen’s knife.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.