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September 19, 2013

Jury selection underway in Beverly slaying

BEVERLY — Jury selection got underway yesterday in the trial of a former Beverly man charged with fatally stabbing another man during a fight at Balch Park in Beverly 21/2 years ago.

But, first, both the defense and prosecution raised concerns about whether Sajan “Sage” Christensen was competent to stand trial, after Christensen’s attorney, Ray Buso, mentioned that Christensen had been “reducing” the amount of medication he is taking while in custody.

Buso also raised concern that a hearing on Tuesday over Christensen’s decision to reject a plea offer that would have resulted in a 12-to-15-year sentence for manslaughter had triggered symptoms of Christensen’s post-traumatic stress disorder.

Christensen, 20, has been diagnosed with the condition, and other mental health issues, as a result of abuse and neglect he suffered as a young child in Russia, first by his birth parents and then at an orphanage.

He was subsequently adopted by an American teacher and brought to the United States, but he was removed from that man’s custody after allegations surfaced that the man was a pedophile, Buso told Judge Howard Whitehead.

His adoptive parents, who have been present in court and who are paying for Christensen’s attorney, were unable to handle Christensen’s emotional issues, and he was subsequently put back into the foster care system. He was aging out of that system and living at Blaine House when he was charged in the March 17, 2011, slaying.

Christensen is facing a first-degree murder charge in the death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro, 26, after the two and another teen, Adam Martin, agreed to fight at the park. Vernazzaro was unarmed but weighed twice either of the teens.

After Buso mentioned Christensen’s emotional reaction to the discussion with the judge, including apparent concern that the judge was pressuring him to take the plea deal, and the stoppage of medication, prosecutor Kristen Buxton raised a concern that Christensen was not capable of making a rational decision.

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