BEVERLY — A prosecutor called the death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro on a Beverly playground “an ambush.”
The lawyer for the teenager charged with stabbing Vernazzaro to death said it was the unintended outcome of a long-abused teenager defending himself against a “bully.”
The Salem Superior Court jury that has been chosen to decide the fate of Sajan “Sage” Christensen, now 20, will have to decide what was inside Christensen’s head on that St. Patrick’s Day night 21/2 years ago, as Christensen and his friend and fellow group home resident Adam Martin, along with their friend Melissa Hicks, went to Balch Park, armed with a knife and a bat.
Christensen is charged with first-degree murder in Vernazzaro’s death.
Prosecutor Kristen Buxton acknowledged that Vernazzaro, 26, had alcohol and drugs in his system, and that his agreement to fight the much younger Christensen and Martin was “foolish.”
But, said the prosecutor, Vernazzaro was there for a fist fight. “There was no fist fight that night,” said Buxton, describing how the teens armed themselves that night. “It was an ambush.”
“What do we call somebody who’s older, bigger, stronger and who picks on someone smaller, younger and weaker?” Ray Buso, Christensen’s attorney, asked jurors in his opening statement. “A bully?”
Jurors learned that on the night of his death, Vernazzaro weighed 240 pounds, stood nearly 6 feet tall, and was eight years older than Christensen, then 18.
Vernazzaro had been drinking all day, Buso told jurors, and had recently used cocaine and marijuana.
And he wanted Hicks, then a 17-year-old girl, still in braces, just 80 pounds, to come over to his place.
“What was that about?” Buso asked the jury.
That’s what triggered the exchanges between Christensen and Vernazzaro that led up to an agreement to fight.
But, Buso said, Christensen didn’t want to fight. He armed himself, the lawyer said, for protection.
The weapons didn’t dissuade Vernazzaro, Buso argued. Someone told Vernazzaro that Martin had a bat. Others saw the glint of Christensen’s knife. Still, the older man charged at the teenagers, bare chested.
And once Vernazzaro got control of the bat, Buso suggested, “It was impossible for (Christensen) to think of going down on the ground, under another drunken, aggressive adult, to become his punching bag. It was not going to happen.”
Why didn’t Christensen go to an adult for help?
Buso pointed to his client’s traumatic history. He was born to alcoholic and negligent parents in Russia, who eventually lost custody of him and his sisters, Buso said.
He was put into a Russian orphanage at 5, where he was “disciplined” by being “caned” on his feet and burned on the back of his legs. After two years, an American teacher adopted him.
But that teacher was later accused of being a pedophile, and Christensen was taken away by the Department of Social Services, now known as the Department of Children and Families.
After several foster homes, a Wilmington couple, Dean Christensen and Jane Olingy, adopted the boy.
But they were eventually unable to deal with his emotional issues, and Christensen again ended up in state custody, this time in the Blaine House group home in Beverly, though he remained in contact with the Christensens during that time.
Christensen trusted no adult, said Buso.
As Buso spoke, the Christensens, who are paying for their son’s defense, and several friends and relatives who were seated in the courtroom wept openly. So did Buso.
Buxton acknowledged in her opening that the circumstances of Christensen’s life were “sad and tragic.”
But she urged jurors to put aside their sympathy and to focus on what happened that night.
And after his arrest, Buxton told jurors, Christensen maintained to police that he’d never stabbed Vernazzaro — who had stab wounds to his chest, head and back. Instead, Christensen told Beverly and state police detectives, Vernazzaro must have “fallen” on the knife.
Following Buso’s opening statement, Buxton asked for a “sidebar” conference, during which she asked for a mistrial, citing, among other reasons, Buso’s tears during his opening, as well as his description of the law to jurors on the difference between murder and manslaughter.
Judge Howard Whitehead denied the motion but did tell jurors that Buso’s characterization of the law to them was not entirely accurate, and that the legal definition of “malice” is much more complex than the lawyer suggested.
Jurors later in the morning visited the scene of the killing, just off Cabot Street, not far from the Cummings Center.
Martin, Christensen’s co-defendant, whose lawyer said felt pressured by Christensen to join him that night, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter last week and received a 12-15 year state prison term.
The same deal was repeatedly offered by prosecutors to Christensen, who has rejected the offer.
Hicks, meanwhile, is scheduled to stand trial on a charge of being an accessory after the fact, later this fall. Prosecutors allege that she tried to get rid of the baseball bat used in the attack.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.