SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 19, 2013

Jury selection underway in Beverly slaying

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — 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.

Buso then told the judge that Christensen had been tapering off of just one medication, a sleep aid, so that he would be more alert in the morning.

Buxton said she was worried that forcing Christensen to go to trial now, without knowing for certain the potential effects of withdrawing from the medication or his PTSD, might increase the likelihood of an appeal for a new trial.

But Whitehead concluded that it appeared Christensen understood the proceedings, and he chose to begin jury selection.

In another issue the lawyers had hoped to resolve before trial, Whitehead indicated a second time that he, as of now, does not see how he will be able to give jurors the option of considering self-defense, given the evidence that’s been made known to him.

While the judge said he would not preclude Buso from mentioning self-defense in his opening statement, “I have doubts, though, in the end, whether that case is going to be made,” Whitehead said.

Prior to the start of jury selection, Buso renewed a request to quiz jurors on their prior knowledge of the case, citing in particular stories that appeared last week and yesterday in The Salem News.

The case had also received extensive coverage from Boston-area media in 2011, and last year, Boston Magazine published a story on Christensen’s difficult upbringing.

But just four members of the pool of more than 40 potential jurors recalled hearing anything about the case.

Ten jurors were chosen for the trial yesterday; six more will have to be selected before the trial gets underway with opening statements.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.