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October 4, 2013

Judge bars 'prejudicial' testimony on stabbing victim

BEVERLY — For Sajan “Sage” Christensen, it’s one question that potentially undercuts his claim of self-defense in the March 2011 stabbing death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro: Why did he decide to go to Balch Park that night at all, after it was clear Vernazzaro wanted to fight.

In an interview after his arrest, Christensen, now 20, told the detectives he “was a man, not a (vulgarity),” Beverly police Detective Jeff Liacos testified yesterday under cross-examination by Christensen’s attorney, Ray Buso.

“He was going to fight him,” Liacos said. “He was a man. He wasn’t going to back down.” The detective conceded that he didn’t understand Christensen’s decision to fight a man twice his size and eight years older.

But Buso’s plan to offer jurors a possible reason: a suggestion that Vernazzaro, 26, was affiliated with a gang known as the “Crazy White Boys,” was shut down by Judge Howard Whitehead after a hearing outside the jury’s presence.

The jury was ushered out for about 10 minutes while Buso argued that he should be allowed to ask Liacos about whether Vernazzaro was a gang member — something Buso says his client believed at the time. That belief, argued Buso, would have led Christensen to fear that if he didn’t accept the challenge to fight, he’d face later repercussions.

Liacos, during what is known as a “voir dire” proceeding, testified that Vernazzaro, as a teenager in the 1990s, was one of a handful of Gloucester Crossing teens who began calling themselves members of the gang, a white supremacist group. At the time, Liacos was the school resource officer and knew Vernazzaro, who had obtained a tattoo with the letters “CWB” when he was 15.

But Beverly police never took the “gang” seriously, Liacos testified, and it has been defunct for years.

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