BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — BEVERLY — Much had been made of the horrific abuse suffered by Sajan “Sage” Christensen, at the hands of his birth parents, then in an orphanage, and finally, after he was adopted by a suspected pedophile.
But a Salem Superior Court judge yesterday said Christensen’s background does not excuse his actions on the night of March 17, 2011, when he and a second teenager beat and stabbed James “J.P.” Vernazzaro to death inside Balch Park in Beverly.
Christensen, now 20, was sentenced yesterday to 15 to 20 years in state prison by Judge Howard Whitehead, who said he has concerns about the anger inside the young man that led him to kill the 26-year-old Vernazzaro.
“I have real concerns about what lies in the future for Mr. Christensen,” said the judge, who presided over the four-week trial. “I’m concerned about the danger Mr. Christensen poses. There is clearly an underlying anger within him ... it is an anger that led to this incident.”
Christensen was convicted earlier this month of manslaughter, a lesser offense than the first-degree murder charge for which he stood trial. The maximum penalty for manslaughter is 20 years in prison.
The judge’s sentence was what prosecutors Kristen Buxton and John Brennan had requested.
Buxton raised the same concerns about Christensen’s anger during her argument.
“The defendant is an angry and lethally dangerous young man,” said the prosecutor, who cited an alleged threat to a cellmate and an assault on a correctional officer by Christensen while he was awaiting trial.
The crime “was a concerted attack ... against an unarmed man, over nothing more than words,” Buxton said.
Christensen’s attorney, Raymond Buso, had urged a six- to 12-year term, lower than even the voluntary sentencing guidelines in Massachusetts — guidelines Whitehead said fail to take into account the difference between a vehicular homicide and a planned attack.
And, said the judge, many, if not most, of the defendants he sees in murder and manslaughter cases have suffered abusive childhoods.
Yet, none of those other defendants typically had access to the “top-flight” psychological counseling and treatment, including years with a Harvard-affiliated child psychiatrist, or supportive adoptive parents, said the judge as he rejected the notion that the abuse of Christensen mitigated his conduct.
He and co-defendant Adam Martin “double-teamed Mr. Vernazzaro,” said the judge. “It appears Mr. Vernazzaro never got in a single blow before he was clubbed over the head and then stabbed ... not once but repeatedly.”
Martin last month accepted a plea agreement and is serving a 12- to 15-year prison term for manslaughter, the same offer Christensen rejected before trial.
“Mr. Vernazzaro was left alone to die in the darkness on a presumably cold March evening,” said the judge.
And while Christensen is small and looks young for his age, that “is not a license to kill,” the judge said.
As the judge announced his sentence, both Christensen and his second adoptive father, Dean Christensen, shook their heads.
Moments earlier, both men had pleaded with the judge for mercy.
Sajan Christensen, who according to his attorney is already pursuing an appeal of his conviction, stood and read from a statement telling the family of Vernazzaro that he “would like to express my deepest apology to J.P.’s family.”
“Please try and understand the unfortunate circumstances that took place were never intentional,” said the 20-year-old defendant to Vernazzaro’s siblings, nieces and other family members. “It was truly an accident. For whatever it’s worth, I’m truly sorry.”
Dean Christensen, a banker who, along with his wife Jane Olingy, adopted the defendant when he was around 10, described how he had to comfort his son after countless nightmares, and how his son now wants to become an attorney and “truly, truly wants to help people.”
Then, as Olingy had done during the trial, he disputed a report filed in support of the hospitalization of his son that said the boy had threatened to murder both parents with a knife in their sleep.
Buxton had raised that incident during her sentencing argument. And she referred to another incident, this one while Christensen was held at Middleton Jail, in which he allegedly told a cellmate that he’d kill him, warning, “I’ve killed before, and I’ll do it again.”
The prosecutor also referred to an incident at Middleton Jail in which Christensen was charged with swinging a bar of soap inside a sock or pillowcase at a corrections officer in retaliation for being warned to quiet down the night before.
After that incident, Christensen was transferred to the Cambridge Jail, in Middlesex County.
That’s where, the judge learned from Buso and Christensen’s father, a friend of Dean Christensen works as a supervising correctional officer.
Kevin Paige, who works for the Middlesex Sheriff’s Department, wrote a letter of support for Christensen that Buso read to the judge. Because the letter was placed in the non-public probation file for Christensen, it could not be determined whether Paige wrote it on official state letterhead, but Paige said in the letter he believes Christensen would “be able to overcome his situation ... and move beyond this tragic event” if given a shorter prison term.
Vernazzaro’s family members said he too had a difficult upbringing, born somewhat unexpectedly to a mother who, in her 40s wasn’t planning for more kids and a father who struggled with alcohol and was diagnosed with cancer shortly before Vernazzaro’s death.
And while they acknowledge that he hadn’t always made the wisest choices, “he had a giant heart.”
“He was just a big kid inside that large body,” his sister Mary Tower said in a victim impact statement.
Outside court, she said that she was satisfied with the judge’s sentence but that “no amount of time in the world will change anything. J.P. is gone.”
During the trial, Vernazzaro’s brother Steven sat through the characterization of his younger brother as a “carny,” a drug user, and as someone who would pursue a teenage girl. He remained stoic through all of it, something the judge remarked upon during sentencing.
“If you were a spectator walking into the courtroom, you might have wondered who was on trial,” Whitehead said.
“Justice was served today with this sentence,” District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said in a press release yesterday afternoon. “This defendant, along with his friend, viciously attacked an unarmed man and left him to die.”
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.