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.