SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 10, 2014

Panel reduces sentence for man convicted in Beverly slaying

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — A man convicted of manslaughter in the 2011 stabbing death of a Beverly man had two years shaved off his prison term Thursday by a little-known sentencing appeals panel of judges.

Sajan “Sage” Christensen, 21, was sentenced last fall to 15 to 20 years in prison for the death of James “J.P.” Vernazzaro, 26, in Balch Park in Beverly on St. Patrick’s Day 2011.

But the three-judge panel decided that the sentence imposed in October by a Salem Superior Court judge was “excessive” and reduced it to 13 to 20 years.

Christensen’s attorney, Ray Buso, said he was both surprised and pleased by the decision, noting that the three judges on the panel are not known for handing out light sentences.

Prosecutors, who had argued against changing the original sentence, would not comment on the revision, said Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.

Christensen, who was 18 at the time, was charged with murder but convicted of the lesser offense following a trial in which he claimed years of abuse in a Russian orphanage during his early childhood, and the trauma of being adopted by a man suspected of being a pedophile, had caused him to misread and overreact to threats.

Vernazzaro and Christensen had exchanged words earlier in the evening and agreed to meet that night.

Vernazzaro was unarmed, while Christensen and his co-defendant, Adam Martin, who was 17 at the time, carried a baseball bat and a knife. Prosecutor Kristen Buxton argued during the trial that the teens laid in wait for Vernazzaro, who, while twice their size, was also intoxicated and unarmed.

Christensen is currently serving his sentence at the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.

Martin accepted a plea agreement before trial and received a 12- to 15-year sentence for manslaughter, a deal Christensen rejected.

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