SALEM — A Peabody man could serve up to a year and a half in jail if he pleads guilty to stabbing a Salem man back in March, a Salem Superior Court judge said on Tuesday. 

William Cusumano, 37, of 29 Oak St. is facing a charge of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury in the March 2 stabbing of Khris Lara, 25, of Salem. 

But Lara is also facing charges, after police found heroin and cocaine in the minivan cab he was driving on the night of the incident, which took place outside a gas station on Boston Street near Lara's apartment at the time. Because of that, he is declining to testify against Cusumano. 

Instead, prosecutors are relying on statements made by Lara at the scene of the stabbing — and on eyewitnesses who saw parts of the confrontation, though they could not hear the words being exchanged. 

Police initially suspected that the stabbing was what is known on the street as a "drug rip," a theft or attempted theft of drugs or money between a drug dealer and a customer.

But during a hearing Tuesday, prosecutor Jennifer Kirshenbaum acknowledged that police and prosecutors may never know the actual motive for the stabbing, given Lara's decision to invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and not testify against Cusumano. 

During a sentencing conference Tuesday, Kirshenbaum asked Judge Thomas Drechsler to impose a 3 1/2 to five year state prison term for Cusumano. She said Lara suffered stab wounds to his chest and abdomen and his hand was slashed in the incident. 

After looking at a photo of the hand wound, Drechsler commented, "I'm sure that required some stitches." 

Before he was charged, Lara told police that Cusumano had walked up to the Americab minivan taxi he was in, smiling. When Lara asked him why he was smiling, Cusumano said he'd mistaken Lara for someone else, the prosecutor said. 

Then, Lara told police, Cusumano called him a racial slur and went into the gas station. When he came back out, the confrontation continued, ending with Cusumano pulling a knife and stabbing Lara, said the prosecutor. 

Kirshenbaum said Cusumano was found about a half-mile away. 

Police had interacted with Cusumano before the stabbing, when they saw him walking alone, late at night. He told them his car had broken down and he was walking home to Peabody. 

Cusumano's lawyer, Patrick Regan, asked the judge to give his client supervised probation rather than send him to jail, saying he is the primary breadwinner in his family and also supports two children from a prior relationship. 

Regan said Cusumano has been working steadily at a Rowley manufacturing business, where he is being trained as a machinist, a job he would lose if sent to jail. 

He said Cusumano is willing to take part in anger management classes, acknowledging that while his record is short, it includes crimes like resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and malicious destruction, as well as two domestic restraining orders. 

Drechsler said he was considering a number of factors in proposing a jail term instead of a state prison sentence, offering a sentence of 2 1/2 years in jail, with 18 months to be served (Cusumano would be eligible for parole after serving nine months), and the balance suspended for two years, along with probation and anger management classes. 

Drechsler gave Cusumano until Nov. 25 to decide whether to accept the sentence and plead guilty or go to trial in the case. 

The drugs were spotted by officers who had been called to the scene to investigate the stabbing. Lara is due back in court on Dec. 23 for a motion hearing in his case. 

The incident also cost him his license to operate a cab in Salem. 

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

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