SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 24, 2013

Testimony continues in Beverly slaying trial

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — BEVERLY — In the hours before he was killed in a Beverly park, James “J.P.” Vernazzaro was with three friends.

Or perhaps four.

He’d arrived at 4 p.m. and drank multiple beers. Or, 6:30 and had one.

And when he left, he was angry. Or, he was nervous.

Those are among the inconsistencies in the accounts of three people who were with Vernazzaro before he went to Balch Park to meet Sajan “Sage” Christensen and Adam Martin.

Christensen, 20, is on trial in Salem Superior Court on a charge of first-degree murder in Vernazzaro’s death on St. Patrick’s Day 2011. Martin, 19, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a reduced charge of manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison, the same deal offered to Christensen.

Instead, however, Christensen and his attorney, Ray Buso, hope to convince the jury of nine women and seven men that Vernazzaro, 26, was a bully who, drunk and angry that Christensen’s former girlfriend, Melissa Hicks, then 17, wouldn’t come over to his house, picked a fight with the defendants, 17 and 18 at the time.

Prosecutors Kristen Buxton and John Brennan say the confrontation was an “ambush” instigated by Christensen.

To that end, Buxton questioned Vernazzaro’s friend Joseph Thomas, who said Vernazzaro received 20 to 30 phone calls while at his apartment that evening.

Buxton sought to elicit testimony that showed that Vernazzaro was hounded into the confrontation.

“It was blowing up,” Thomas, 26, of Beverly, told jurors. “They kept calling and calling and calling until he would answer.”

Another witness, Thomas’ former girlfriend Brittany Dove, 23, said she also recalled the phone calls. “He was getting angry on the phone and yelling,” she testified. “He just seemed very bothered by the whole situation. I remember he said he was probably going to go fight somebody.”

But under questioning by Buso, Dove went further, saying she told Vernazzaro not to go. “They’re little kids,” she said she told Vernazzaro.

Buso asked if she told police Vernazzaro was “enraged.” That drew an objection from Buxton, who said that there was no such reference to the word “enraged” in the woman’s statement to police.

Buso, in the presence of jurors, then announced that he wanted to re-call Dove to the stand today, after reviewing the tape recording of her interview with police.

The judge did not grant the request.

Another witness, Brent Lowry, 26, of Beverly, said Vernazzaro wanted him to come along to the park that night. “I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Lowry said. “I wasn’t going to go fight someone else’s fight.”

Earlier in the day, the jury heard from a medical examiner, Dr. Kim Springer, who testified that the fatal wound, 5 inches deep, was to Vernazzaro’s heart.

While being cross-examined by Buso, the doctor conceded that it would have been possible for the knife to enter Vernazzaro’s chest had he fallen atop it.

But on further questioning by Brennan, Springer said it was also possible that the wounds could have been inflicted by someone punching at Vernazzaro with a knife.

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