BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — BEVERLY — A Beverly teenager pleaded guilty yesterday to charges of manslaughter and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon in the St. Patrick’s Day 2011 slaying of a Beverly man.
Adam Martin, now 19, was 17 when he and another teen, Sajan “Sage” Christensen, then 18, agreed to meet 26-year-old James “J.P.” Vernazzaro for a fight at Balch Park off Cabot Street.
Martin yesterday admitted to striking Vernazzaro at least once in the head and on his hip with an aluminum baseball bat that he’d brought to the confrontation, during which Christensen is charged with stabbing Vernazzaro five times.
Under the terms of a plea agreement, the original first-degree murder charge was reduced to manslaughter, and Martin will serve 12 to 15 years in state prison, to be followed by five years of probation.
Christensen, meanwhile, is scheduled to stand trial next week on a charge of first-degree murder.
Salem Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead accepted the agreement between Martin and prosecutors yesterday during a hearing where family members and friends of Vernazzaro filled one side of the courtroom.
The other side of the courtroom was empty.
The teens were residents of Blaine House in Beverly, a now-shuttered residential program for troubled teens aging out of foster care. Vernazzaro was a carnival worker and sometime amateur wrestler.
The dispute centered around a girl, Melissa Hicks, who was 17 at the time. Hicks was also charged in the case, as an accessory after the fact; her trial is scheduled for later this year.
Prosecutor Kristen Buxton told the judge that all three teens had been drinking when Vernazzaro called Hicks. Christensen, who had once dated the girl, became “enraged” by the phone call, said Buxton.
That touched off a series of phone calls back and forth, and eventually a challenge thrown down by the teens.
The three teens, all of them now intoxicated, made a stop at the Burger King on Rantoul Street, a few blocks away, seeking backup for the fight, as the calls continued back and forth, Buxton told the judge. Eventually they made their way to the park.
Vernazzaro, shirtless, was there, with a friend.
Martin swung the bat at Vernazzaro’s head, and may have taken another swing at his head before striking the older man’s hip, said the prosecutor.
Witnesses told police Christensen appeared to be hitting Vernazzaro in the chest and back, said Buxton.
But he was holding a knife, and a medical examiner concluded that Vernazzaro was stabbed five times in the back and chest, the fatal wound delivered to his heart.
One person at the scene eventually called 911, but by then it was too late, said the prosecutor.
The scene is just half a mile from Beverly Hospital, she noted.
As the prosecutor read the facts, Vernazzaro’s sister, Mary Tower, wept.
In a victim-impact statement read by the prosecutor, she recalled her brother’s “big heart.”
“We learned how quickly your future can change in the blink of an eye,” Tower wrote.
“As a young man, J.P. didn’t always make the greatest decisions,” his sister wrote, alluding to Vernazzaro’s brushes with the law, “but he had a big heart. He was always trying to guide his nieces and nephews to make better decisions than he had.”
Just three weeks after his son was killed, James R. Vernazzaro, 68, who had been ailing, died, broken-hearted, his daughter said in the statement.
Both Martin and Christensen had struggled with mental health issues in the years leading up to the killing, an issue expected to be raised by Christensen when he stands trial.
Martin told the judge yesterday that he’s been hospitalized for bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder.
That history, along with Martin’s age and his willingness to take responsibility for his actions prior to trial, was taken into consideration during the plea negotiations, Buxton told the judge.
Earlier this year, Martin’s attorney, Jeff Karp, had argued that though, at 17, Martin was considered an adult by the criminal justice system, he should have been afforded the right to have a parent or guardian present during police questioning, as would have been his right as a juvenile.
Karp cited last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that life sentences for children under 18 are unconstitutional because they fail to take into account the prospect that young people could be successfully rehabilitated.
Had Martin been convicted of first-degree murder, which normally carries a sentence of life without parole, that Supreme Court decision likely would have affected his sentencing.
Following his release, Martin will be on five years of supervised probation, with conditions that include a no-contact order with the Vernazzaro family, a mental health and substance abuse evaluation, and that he earn his high school equivalency diploma.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.