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Hockey Killing to Put Boys on Stand

Crime: Children are expected to testify at the Massachusetts trial of a father charged with beating a coach to death at his son's game.

January 05, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As two passionate sports fathers engaged in a fatal fistfight at a hockey rink 18 months ago, children were watching--and at least one was crying, the rink manager testified Friday in the nation's first trial involving lethal sports rage at a youth athletic event.

The police officer who rushed to the Burbank Ice Arena said Thomas Junta was standing alone outside, his shirt torn and his face scratched. Inside the rink July 5, 2000, police Sgt. James Cormier said he found Michael Costin lying bloody and motionless, with young skaters in hockey attire surrounding him.

"To tell you the truth," the prosecution's lead witness said here Friday, "my first instinct was to get the children away from the scene. It was pretty dramatic."

Junta, a 275-pound truck driver, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if convicted of manslaughter. He is accused of overpowering the 156-pound Costin and pounding his head on the floor until he lost consciousness. Junta is expected to testify in a trial that the judge hopes to send to the jury next week.

Prosecutors contend Costin was killed by a father crazed with anger over what he saw as mistreatment of his young son. Defense lawyers say Junta acted in self-defense after a verbal exchange grew violent.

Children's advocates say the case demonstrates how parents involved in youth sports can go over the deep end. The use of children as witnesses in a case like this, they said, is troubling and potentially damaging.

Eleven youngsters who were present when Costin was killed are scheduled to testify next week.

Among the prospective young witnesses are three sons of Costin, the unofficial coach at the fateful pickup hockey game 18 months ago. Junta's son Quinlan, who also skated that day in what attorneys called "stick practice," is expected to be a key witness for the defense.

All the boys were 8 to 10 years old when Costin and Junta first exchanged words, then blows.

The scene "must have been horrifying" for the young skaters, said Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint. "It must have just filled them with total disbelief and horror."

Summoning these children as witnesses is risky, Poussaint said, "because it's a you-said-I-said, you-saw-I-saw situation." As they take the stand next week, the children may feel enormous pressure, he predicted, in part from a sense of loyalty to one father or the other.

But USC law professor Thomas D. Lyon, an expert on child witnesses, said the children may benefit from taking the stand.

"They want to be able to tell their side of the story," he said. "They want justice to be done."

In opening arguments late Thursday, prosecuting attorney Sheila Calkins argued that Junta, 43, became enraged when his son ended up at the bottom of a pile of brawling boys on the ice. When Junta bolted down from the stands to challenge Costin, Calkins said the coach called out from the ice, "That's hockey."

Junta, she said, responded, "That's not hockey."

Junta left the rink but returned moments later, pushing past a rink manager to confront Costin, a 40-year-old carpenter.

Defense counsel Thomas Orlandi Jr. depicted Junta as "a good family man" who acted in self-defense when Costin lunged at him as the two argued.

In an interview with police soon after the incident, Junta described the exchange as "a stupid guy thing."

Friday, the trial unfolded with an emphasis on medical evidence. A firefighter who rushed to the rink as an emergency medical technician testified that Costin never breathed on his own despite repeated attempts to revive him.

While Junta stared at the witness table, the physician who conducted Costin's autopsy described the lethal injuries. Costin received severe blows to the left side of his head, said Dr. Stanton Kessler, causing brain damage and damaging the victim's vertebral artery, "one of the most protected areas in the body."

Kessler's description of wounds behind Costin's left ear was so explicit that many jurors were seen rubbing that area of their own heads.

Costin was fresh off the rink and still in his pads and ice skates but not wearing a helmet at the time of the altercation, according to prosecutors. Defense lawyers say Costin tried to jab Junta with his skates and that Junta's face and neck were scratched when Costin ripped a gold chain off their client's neck.

With 35 million to 40 million American children involved in organized athletic competition, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, the case has drawn attention as a symbol of a generation of parents who are overly invested in their children's sports lives. Alliance President Fred Engh said Friday that violence among parents at youth sporting events is on the rise.

"Unfortunately, what I have to say is that it's a growing trend," Engh said. "We have incident after incident--not fatal, but violence that might have ended in death."

Engh called the death of Michael Costin "the billboard across America to tell parents that this can happen."

Former National Basketball Assn. player Bob Bigelow, now a youth sports activist and author of a book called "Just Let the Kids Play," said the obsession of many parents over their children's athletics has grown to a "more-more-more, younger-younger-younger, better-better-better" syndrome.

"Parents are worried that little Justin is not going to get as many games as little Jeremy," Bigelow said Friday. He called hockey parents "the most virulent of the species. They don't look at it anymore as hockey games. They look at it as an investment in a child's future. That's the problem, right there."

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