BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — 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.
Prosecutor Kristen Buxton objected to the line of questioning, calling it the latest effort by Buso to “trash” Vernazzaro. She accused Buso of intentionally dropping other prejudicial information to jurors, such as referring to Vernazzaro as a “carny” and insinuating in questions that Melissa Hicks, then 17, the young woman the two men were fighting about, may have been pregnant.
She also took issue with Buso’s “sarcastic” tone in his questions to the police detective.
Whitehead ruled that the basis of Buso’s claim was “mushy” and that the information would be more prejudicial than helpful to jurors. He cut off the line of questions.
The prosecution is expected to rest its case today after the testimony of state police Detective Robert LaBarge, the other lead investigator in the case.
Buso has said that Christensen will take the stand in his own defense.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.