BEVERLY — The first order of business for Sajan “Sage” Christensen as he took the witness stand in his own defense yesterday was a confession.
“Did you go to the (group home) and get a knife?” asked his attorney, Ray Buso.
Did you stab J.P. Vernazzaro?”
“I was scared,” said Christensen, his voice breaking.
And then, for the next 45 minutes, Buso led Christensen through the story of his life. He’ll be back on the stand today to talk about the night of the killing — and face cross-examination.
Christensen, 20, is facing a charge of first-degree murder in Vernazzaro’s death on St. Patrick’s Day 2011 at Balch Park. Christensen, then 18, and a second teen, Adam Martin, 17, armed themselves for a confrontation with Vernazzaro, 26, who had been calling their friend, Melissa Hicks, 17.
Martin has pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and received a 12- to 15-year sentence.
Christensen, who turned down the same offer, and his attorney are hoping to convince jurors that the young man’s traumatic upbringing, including abuse in a Russian orphanage, his subsequent adoption by a suspected pedophile and bullying in school, led to post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, causing him to misjudge the situation that night — and then lie about it.
In contrast to his language during the recorded police interrogation, when he referred to the police officers as “dude” and used slang terms like “mad” to mean “many,” Christensen yesterday frequently used words more commonly heard from social workers or lawyers, such as referring to fellow students as “peers” and describing fights as “altercations.”
Buso asked Christensen about his earliest memories.
“I recall my mother, um, having a lot of men inside the home,” Christensen said. “I didn’t know who my father was. I remember siblings ... they were older than me. I remember two females and one male.”
“I remember my mother dropping me off at an orphanage and telling me she was coming back for me,” Christensen testified.
“Did she come back?” asked Buso.
“No,” said the defendant.
Moments later, he was describing life in the orphanage, and then, under Buso’s direction, showing jurors the burns on his calves, burns he believes were caused by being scalded with boiling water. He doesn’t recall exactly how that happened but testified that he believes that’s what led to his being placed in the orphanage.
“I remember being in the hospital and kind of just yelling,” he said.
In the orphanage, he shared beds and was beaten on the soles of his feet daily, he said. “Whenever we cried, they would tell us to shut up,” he said.
While there were birthday parties, he told jurors, the toys would be “snatched away” after the visitors left.
Then, he was adopted by an American teacher named Stephen Myers.
“At the time, I thought it was normal because I never had anything like that before,” Christensen said, referring to the home and meals Myers provided. “Looking back, I guess it was traumatic.”
Myers, Christensen testified, would frequently make him stay in a closet while visitors came to their home, first in Denver and later in Amherst, where Myers was principal of the high school until questions emerged about inappropriate conduct with students.
Christensen has not previously disclosed any sexual abuse by Myers. But yesterday he told jurors that once, while taking a bath, Myers touched him. “I didn’t realize until I got older, but while I was taking a bath, I remember this one incident where he was kind of helping me out, kind of cleaning my body.”
“Was he touching you?” asked Buso.
“Yeah ... everywhere,” Christensen responded.
“Did other bad things happen?” asked the lawyer.
“Not that I recall,” Christensen said.
Christensen was later removed from the home after allegations against Myers involving inappropriate conduct with teenagers surfaced.
Earlier yesterday, the defense called Dr. Alison Fife, a psychologist originally hired by the prosecution, to describe her conclusions about Christensen’s mental health, including her diagnoses of PTSD and another condition called reactive attachment disorder, which stems from abuse or neglect in early childhood.
She suggested that the conditions might have led Christensen to be quick to anger or overreact to a situation.
But under cross-examination by prosecutor Kristen Buxton, Fife also acknowledged that the disorders wouldn’t prevent Christensen from controlling those responses or knowing right from wrong.
After jurors were sent home for the day, Buxton, for the second time, raised the issue of Buso’s emotional reactions to testimony.
In a case where jurors, as in all cases, will be reminded by both the judge and the prosecutor not to let sympathy factor into their decision, Buxton argued that Buso’s tears were unprofessional and unfair.
“If a commonwealth prosecutor sobbed” during testimony, Buxton argued to Judge Howard Whitehead, “it would be a big issue.”
She went on to cite other cases where Buso has shown visible emotion, including the trial of a Chelsea man charged with beating a Peabody father to death outside a Lynn storage warehouse and a child-rape trial involving a man from Salem who was facing deportation to El Salvador if convicted.
Buso acknowledged that he was “choked up” by his client’s testimony and that his “eyes got watery,” then went on to suggest that he is frequently moved by the cases he tries.
Whitehead said he didn’t view Buso’s tears as “feigned” but told the lawyer that in the future he should ask for a break in the proceedings if he becomes emotional.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.