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'My Dad Hit Him 3 Quick Times'

Courts: A boy, 12, tells of a fatal fight involving his father at a youth hockey practice in Massachusetts.

January 09, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — His hair freshly trimmed, his shirt crisply pressed and his wrist in a red, white and blue cast from a recent hockey injury, the witness nodded that yes, he knew the difference between right and wrong. Yes, he said, he understood about telling the truth: If you don't, "you get punished."

With that introduction, 12-year-old Quinlan Junta mesmerized a crowded courtroom here Tuesday as he took the stand as a defense witness in the trial of his father, charged with beating another sports dad to death at a youth hockey practice. Thomas Junta, 44, never took his eyes off his only son as the boy recalled the fight at a nearby ice arena on July 5, 2000, that claimed the life of 40-year-old Michael Costin.

"I saw my dad, and then I saw Mr. Costin on his back," the sixth-grader testified. "I saw him flip [Costin] over his shoulders. He went on the floor. I just like stood there. My dad hit him three quick times, really quick."

On cross-examination, prosecutor Sheila Calkins asked Quinlan: "You yelled out to your dad, 'Stop!' didn't you?"

"Yes," the boy answered.

Costin never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead the next day.

Thomas Junta, charged with manslaughter, contends he is not guilty because he acted in self-defense during the fracas at the end of a children's practice. The trial is expected to go to the jury by week's end. If convicted, Junta could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

The sons of both men were on informal but opposing teams. The fatal altercation started when the two fathers exchanged harsh words on the ice. Costin, in skates, was supervising the practice and Junta, in shorts and a muscle T-shirt, was complaining that the play was too rough.

The argument boiled over into a locker room, where the men fought before being separated. The last, lethal round took place in an open area in front of the skating rink, where Costin was left unconscious on the rubber mat that covered the floor.

The case has drawn widespread attention as an example of the danger of parental over-involvement in youth sports. Both Junta and Costin were avid hockey dads whose sons regularly skated at the Burbank Ice Arena in Reading, 15 miles north of Boston. When the informal stick practice degenerated into a brawl on the ice 17 months ago, Costin's three sons were on one side of the action--and Quinlan Junta was on the other.

"I thought I was just going to be playing a friendly game," Quinlan said. When his team started to win the pickup game, he said, "they started hitting us."

The boy, whose hockey career already has encompassed more than half his life, took the stand amid controversy both over the use of child witnesses and over the use of their full names. Against the judge's advice, a 12-year-old figure skater who testified Monday was identified both by prosecutors and by some news organizations.

Prosecutors did not summon Brendan, 14, Michael, 13, or 12-year-old Sean Costin as witnesses--although the victim's three sons were present the day their father died. Any of the boys could be called as rebuttal witnesses.

Defendant Gives Son a Pep Talk During Break

The witness list for the trial includes 11 children, three of whom have testified so far.

Seeking some privacy in a quiet corner of a hallway outside the courtroom Tuesday, Thomas Junta seized the occasion of a brief recess to give Quinlan a fatherly pep talk.

"Tell the truth," he said, shaking the boy's hand. "Don't let them scare you."

It was a variation of the admonition Quinlan said his father gave him after the friendly sports practice deteriorated into a pile of 10- to 12-year-old boys slashing each other with hockey sticks.

"He told me to defend myself," Quinlan said.

Junta, a 6-foot-2, 275-pound truck driver when the incident took place, himself rushed from the stands to the ice to defend his son's team when the practice turned rough. His 12-year-old joined a chorus of witnesses who recounted how Junta, enraged, called out to Costin--who was skating with the boys--to break up the rumble. A self-employed carpenter, Costin was 6 feet tall and weighed 156 pounds.

Quinlan said Costin replied, "Hockey's about hitting." Thomas Junta fired back with an expletive and said, "It's about having fun."

Repeated testimony since the trial began Thursday indicated that the two men first scuffled in a locker room when the practice ended. Ryan Carr, a 21-year-old hockey player from St. Michael's College in Vermont, pulled the combatants apart. In front of the jury Monday, Carr used his fists to demonstrate how Junta and Costa were fighting.

Carr testified that it was Costin who threw the first punch in the locker room. Carr also said Junta abruptly stopped hitting Costin and simply walked away.

Rink Manager Testifies About Calling Police

A rink manager, Nancy Blanchard, on Monday told the court she immediately called the police emergency line. One concern she had, Blanchard said, was that "there were kids everywhere."

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