SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 8, 2013

Doctor says teen was depressed, suffered PTSD

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — The Brookline psychiatrist who treated Sajan “Sage” Christensen for more than three years, until just months before Christensen was charged in the stabbing death of a Beverly man, told jurors yesterday that Christensen suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and reactive attachment disorder.

But Dr. Steven Nickman was barred from testifying about the sources of those conditions, after the judge presiding over Christensen’s trial agreed with prosecutors that such testimony would be hearsay.

Instead, Christensen’s attorney, Ray Buso, will have to call other witnesses, including Christensen himself, to describe the abuse, neglect and turmoil during his childhood that, the defense argues, led to his decision to arm himself for a fight with James “J.P.” Vernazzaro.

Christensen, now 20, was 18 when he and a second teen, Adam Martin, then 17, agreed to a fight with Vernazzaro, 26.

Vernazzaro died from a stab wound to the heart, one of five slashes or stab wounds inflicted during the encounter.

Nickman, who is affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, treated Christensen from 2007 until about four months before the stabbing, while he was still living with his adoptive parents, Dean Christensen and Jane Olingy, in Wilmington.

He diagnosed the teenager with three conditions, including reactive attachment disorder, a condition that occurs in children who have had significant instability in their lives and no consistent caretaker, like some adopted children. They lack an ability to form connections or trust others, the doctor said.

But when Buso tried to elicit testimony about the details of what led to the diagnosis, Judge Howard Whitehead decided to ask for a preview outside the jury’s presence.

The doctor described how he’d been told Christensen was placed in a Russian orphanage at the age of 41/2 and later adopted by an American teacher, Stephen Myers.

Myers later lost custody of the boy amid concerns about sexual misconduct with children, something that led Christensen to question Myers’ motivation for adopting him.

“It was one more loss for him,” Nickman told the judge outside the jury’s presence. “He was quite confused about the nature of Mr. Myers’ interest in him, but it was better than nothing.”

There were a series of placements in foster homes, as well as bullying, the doctor said.

Prosecutor Kristen Buxton objected to Nickman being allowed to testify about Christensen’s background. Even if summarized, “It’s still hearsay-based,” argued the prosecutor.

The judge, citing the state of the law in Massachusetts, agreed, barring Buso from exploring that area.

Instead, the doctor testified about the symptoms he saw in Christensen, including an inability to trust.

Later, on cross-examination, the doctor conceded that by the time treatment ended in 2010, Christensen was no longer on medication.

Earlier in the day, Steven Arroyo, a friend of Vernazzaro, returned to the stand for cross-examination by Buxton.

When Buxton confronted him with a series of lies he’d told investigators early in the case, including his claim that he too had been attacked that night, he admitted that he didn’t want people to know he’d failed to respond to Vernazzaro’s cry for help that night.

And he was also concerned about being labeled as a “snitch,” even as he learned that his friend had died.

Things turned contentious during the cross-examination. Arroyo, originally on the state’s witness list, was angry about a request by prosecutors that he voluntarily agree to come back to court on the day he’d been slated to testify.

The prosecutors then decided not to call him at all. Buso then subpoenaed him to testify for the defense, hoping to elicit testimony that mirrored one of his earlier statements to police that he saw Vernazzaro charging at the teens. Instead, in testimony Friday, Arroyo backed away from that statement.

Arroyo, during his cross-examination, repeatedly complained about having to be back in court again, often using profanity and directing his comments toward the prosecutor, who tried to remind him that it was the defense who had called him back to court.

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