BEVERLY — Adam Martin had turned 17 six weeks before the night of March 17, 2011, the night he and a second person, Sajan Christensen, 18, became suspects in the beating and stabbing death of a Beverly man.
Legally, both teens were no longer considered juveniles under Massachusetts law. So when Beverly and state police detectives questioned them, they did not first have to notify a parent or guardian and allow that adult to be present, as they would have if the two were under 17.
Now, Martin’s lawyer is challenging that, pointing to last June’s ruling by the Supreme Court that held that life sentences without parole for those under 18 at the time a crime is committed are unconstitutional.
Lawyer Jeff Karp argued yesterday that the same logic used by the high court in concluding that the brains of teenagers are still developing and are prone to be more “impetuous” or susceptible to suggestion, and less able to understand long-term consequences, ought to also apply while a teenage suspect is being interrogated by police.
“It’s instructive,” Karp argued yesterday.
The high court, in those cases “spent a lot of time discussing brain science. The Supreme Court analyzed the current thinking about how juveniles make decisions.”
Martin and Christensen were residents of a nearby group home for troubled teens who were “aging out” of foster care when, sometime around 9 p.m. on that St. Patrick’s Day, they met James “J.P.” Vernazzaro, 27. The teens and Vernazzaro had been arguing about a girl the teenagers knew, who also lived in the group home.
The three had exchanged messages earlier in the day and agreed to meet that evening at the Balch Street Playground on Cabot Street.
Prosecutors say the pair attacked Vernazzaro; lawyers for Martin and Christensen say they acted in self-defense against the older, larger man. Martin confessed to striking Vernazzaro with a bat, according to police.
Karp yesterday urged Salem Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead to bar prosecutors from using that confession when the two go to trial next month.
The lawyer is also challenging the confession on the grounds that it was not made voluntarily, in part due to Martin’s age, as well as his mental health issues, for which he took medication, at the time.
But the issue that sparked the most discussion yesterday was whether the right of a juvenile to have an “interested adult” present, a right not guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution but instead under the state Declaration of Rights, should be expanded to include those under 18.
Whitehead, the judge, noted that he doesn’t have the legal authority to make the kind of ruling Karp was seeking.
“How much can I do here?” asked the judge, who later told the lawyer that he is “99 percent certain” he will deny the request.
As a judge in the trial court, Whitehead must confine his rulings to existing case law, and in Massachusetts, that means that police were not required to notify a parent before questioning.
Prosecutor Kristen Buxton made a similar argument, suggesting that police acted properly under the existing law and that Karp was asking the judge to make new law.
Both Buxton and the judge, who had already listened to a tape recording of the interrogation of Martin, said that the detectives were especially careful to explain to Martin all of his rights before proceeding, and that there was nothing coercive about the environment (the questioning took place in an old school science lab that is being used by Beverly police as office space) or their tone.
As for Martin’s state of mind at the time, Buxton noted that he was clearheaded enough to try to deny his involvement and to correct officers at various points; it was only after he was told that the victim had died and that detectives might have other evidence against him that he confessed.
Whitehead said that before he makes a final decision, he wants to review a more recent Massachusetts case, that of Javon Walczak of Lynn, who was charged with murder after allegedly stabbing two other teens, one of whom died, during a marijuana deal gone sour back in 2010.
Last month, the state Supreme Judicial Court found that because of Walczak’s age (16 at the time of the killing) prosecutors should have instructed the grand jury on mitigating circumstances, as well as the elements of the crime of murder.
Martin and Christensen are currently set to stand trial on Feb. 25, but Christensen’s lawyer, Ray Buso, will be in court on Jan. 28 to ask that the cases be severed and tried separately.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.