BEVERLY — It’s a case about “what was gong on in this young man’s mind,” said Sajan “Sage” Christensen’s attorney in his closing argument to jurors yesterday.
But just what was going on in Christensen’s head when he stabbed James “J.P.” Vernazzaro, 26, to death on a Beverly playground on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011?
Was he a traumatized teenager lashing out in fear of the older, larger Vernazzaro?
Or was he someone, enraged over being “dissed” and told by others that he could never win a fight with the victim, plotted with co-defendant Adam Martin an “ambush?”
That’s one of the questions jurors are now mulling as they decide whether Christensen, 20, who has admitted to the stabbing in court, is guilty of premeditated murder or manslaughter, or not guilty of any crime.
Before the trial, Christensen rejected an offer by prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a 12- to 15-year sentence (the maximum for manslaughter is 20 years), and opted for a trial, where he could face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of the most serious charge.
His co-defendant in the case, Martin, now 19, took the manslaughter plea deal last month and is now serving the 12- to 15-year sentence.
Christenen’s history — being neglected by his birth parents, then sent to an abusive Russian orphanage, adopted by a man later accused of inappropriate conduct with teenagers, and being bullied in school — played a major role in the defense case, which was based on the idea of “diminished capacity” to determine right from wrong at the time of the crime.
Both Christensen’s own therapist and a forensic psychologist hired by the prosecution agreed that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and another condition called reactive attachment disorder, common among children who have been deprived of consistent care in early childhood.
That, argued the defense, made Christensen likely to misread situations and afraid to trust an adult to help.
“I’m not making an excuse for him,” Buso told jurors. “I’m trying to say you should use it to understand where his mind was that day.”
Christensen, haunted by years of abuse and neglect during his childhood, had become “stuck in the moment,” unable to rationally assess the situation, Buso argued.
Buxton, the prosecutor, acknowledged the “horrifying” abuse experienced by Christensen, and said there’s no reason to disbelieve that it left “deep scars” on his psyche.
Still, Christensen had formed a loving bond with his second adoptive parents, received years of therapy, was doing well in school, played sports, and had even just had his first serious girlfriend (co-defendant Melissa Hicks, who is charged as an accessory after the fact), she argued.
“He still had the capacity to make good decisions,” suggested the prosecutor. And bad ones.
She argued that the abuse in his past had made him angry. “His life experience made him volatile and explosive, and on this night, lethally dangerous,” Buxton told the jury.
During his closing, Buso, who had to acknowledge that Christensen lied to police repeatedly, argued that his expressed disbelief to the detectives over Vernazzaro’s death was genuine and indicated that Christensen had no intention of killing Vernazzaro that evening.
“It’s utter disbelief,” Buso said.
Buxton also argued that the disbelief was authentic. But the prosecutor suggested another reason: Christensen was surprised at the news because he’d seen Vernazzaro dying in the park, “a death scene” of the victim bleeding from chest wounds, including one to the heart, and gasping for air, then later was told by a friend that Vernazzaro was in the hospital.
And both lawyers argued over who was the aggressor in the situation.
Buso suggested that it was the burly Vernazzaro who ignored warnings from friends not to get into a fight.
“Every one of them tried to dissuade him, and he would not be dissuaded,” Buso argued.
His client didn’t want to fight Vernazzaro, Buso said.
Buxton, meanwhile, pointed to testimony of witness Ray L’Italien, who, when he saw the baseball bat in Martin’s hand, warned the teens “If you hit someone in the head with that you could kill him.”
“That’s the idea,” Christensen allegedly told L’Italien, the prosecutor reminded jurors.
“That night, Sage Christensen didn’t care about the consequences of his actions,” said Buxton.
“They had a plan,” Buxton said, describing how both teens went back to the Blaine House group home where they lived to get the weapons.
The jury deliberated for about 31/2 hours yesterday afternoon before being sent home for the day.
The jury is being asked to consider first- and second-degree murder as well as manslaughter. Prosecutors lost one avenue for a first-degree conviction, however, through an oversight by Judge Howard Whitehead, who had missed the prosecutor’s request for an instruction on the theory of “extreme atrocity or cruelty.”
That is one of the available theories under which a jury can find someone guilty of first-degree murder. Premeditation is another. (The third is when a murder occurs during the commission of a felony, which did not apply to this case).
The omission by the judge was not discovered until nearly the conclusion of the jury instructions, and after both sides had made their closing arguments. Buso had not addressed the issue of extreme cruelty or atrocity in his closing, leading Whitehead to suggest that the remedy for the error was to let Buso re-open his closing argument for a few minutes.
But Buxton then decided to waive the issue, allowing the jury to consider only the theory of deliberate premeditation on the first-degree charge.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.