BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — BEVERLY — A young Beverly man could face up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced later this month for the manslaughter conviction a Salem Superior Court jury handed down yesterday afternoon.
Sajan “Sage” Christensen, 20, who had been facing a first-degree murder charge, was found guilty of the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter in the March 17, 2011 stabbing death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro.
Christensen, who showed no visible reaction to the verdict, will be sentenced Oct. 21. His lawyer, Raymond Buso, gave him a pat on the back as the verdict was announced.
Vernazzaro’s brother and sister were visibly upset and crying as they left the courthouse.
Christensen, who was 18 at the time of the killing, and a second teen, Adam Martin, then 17, went to Balch Park on the night of March 17, 2011 to meet Vernazzaro, 26.
The two teens and Vernazzaro had been exchanging heated phone calls and text messages during the hours leading up to the confrontation, Christensen testified.
But unlike Vernazzaro, the teens had decided to bring weapons — Christensen took a folding knife and Martin an aluminum baseball bat.
Prosecutor Kristen Buxton had suggested to jurors that Vernazzaro, overweight and drunk and unsteady on his feet that night, was “ambushed” by the teens as he arrived at the park.
The defense argued that the teens were simply trying to dissuade Vernazzaro from coming after them by having the weapons and that Vernazzaro “charged” at them.
But throughout the case, the defense had to acknowledge that Christensen had lied to police repeatedly, denying that he stabbed Vernazzaro.
On the witness stand, Christensen was unable to explain how Vernazzaro got a 3-inch-deep stab wound to his back. That was one of three stab wounds and two slashes found by the medical examiner on Vernazzaro’s body. The fatal wound pierced Vernazzaro’s heart.
Instead, the defense emphasized the disparity in size between Vernazzaro, who weighed approximately 100 pounds more than either teen, and was six to eight inches taller.
The defense focused on Christensen’s abusive childhood, during which he was neglected by his birth parents, placed in a Russian orphanage where he was abused, adopted by a man later accused of inappropriate conduct with teenagers, and bullied in school.
That, Christensen’s attorney argued, led to post-traumatic stress disorder and a condition called “reactive attachment disorder,” a syndrome in which children who have been neglected or abused by caretakers develop an inability to trust or connect with others. The conditions, argued the defense, impaired Christensen’s judgment.
The prosecution, meanwhile, argued that Christensen had planned the attack on Vernazzaro, angry over the phone exchanges and possibly over Vernazzaro’s interest in Melissa Hicks, then 17, who had been Christensen’s first serious girlfriend.
The prosecutor, in her closing argument, suggested that Christensen was enraged as well at suggestions by his friends that he couldn’t win a fight with Vernazzaro, and deliberately chose to arm himself with the knife, then “lay in wait” in a darkened corner of the park.
The jurors, who had deliberated for about nine hours over two days, declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
Martin, now 19, accepted a plea agreement in which he admitted guilt to a charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years. Martin’s blows from the aluminum bat to Vernazzaro’s head left him with blunt head trauma injuries, a medical examiner testified.
Christensen had rejected the same offer.
Buso said outside court that Christensen and his adoptive parents, Dean Christensen and Jane Olingy, “were all very comfortable that the jury looked at the case and saw what it was.”
Asked if there were regrets about not taking the offer before trial, Buso said that the trial was “a four-week sentencing hearing,” saying his client would have agreed to plead to manslaughter if the sentence being offered had fallen within a set of voluntary sentencing guidelines for the charge, eight to 12 years.
The prosecutors, Buxton and John Brennan, opted not to give a statement about the case until after sentencing.
Christensen’s charge was not his first brush with the law. In 2010, when he was 17, Christensen was charged with receiving a stolen vehicle and related charges after he was seen by a Salem police officer driving and then bailing out of a stolen Honda Civic. That case was later dropped by prosecutors while the murder charges were pending.
Then, in October 2011, while in custody at Middleton Jail on the murder charge, Christensen was charged with attacking a corrections officer by sneaking up on him and striking him with a sock filled with bars of soap, then resisting being placed back into custody by other officers, according to court papers.
The officer, who suffered a cut to his face and was evaluated for arm and hand pain, said he had no idea what motivated the assault other than the fact that the night before, he’d asked Christensen to quiet down because he was yelling from his cell at other inmates, according to the complaint.
The charges in that incident, assault and battery on a corrections officer and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, are still pending in Salem District Court.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.