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'Gentle Giant' Awaits Fate in Hockey Death

Courts: The attorneys make closing arguments in the manslaughter trial of a player's father. Now the jury has the case.

January 11, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — He was a "gentle giant" who was just trying to protect himself, defense attorney Thomas Orlandi Jr. said Thursday in closing arguments in the manslaughter trial of Thomas Junta, a hockey father accused of beating another sports dad to death.

"Gentle giant?" prosecutor Sheila Calkins retorted, barely reining in her disdain when she took her turn at summation. Acting out both sides of the fight before a highly attentive jury, she stated: "He took [Michael Costin's] head and he slammed it into the mat. The 'gentle giant.' "

Jurors were sent to deliberate just after noon Thursday in a nationally televised trial that has come to symbolize the dangers of excessive parental involvement in youth sports.

Junta, 44, is accused of manslaughter in the July 5, 2000, death of 40-year-old Costin following a practice game that included both of their sons. In instructions from Superior Court Judge Charles Grabau, jurors learned Thursday that they may consider both voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges.

The maximum sentence for either charge is 20 years in prison. But with sentencing guidelines set by the state Legislature, a first voluntary manslaughter offense usually carries a prison sentence of eight to 12 years. For involuntary manslaughter, a first offender in Massachusetts normally receives three to five years in prison.

Grabau spent nearly an hour detailing the intricacies of the two types of manslaughter for the jury. The distinctions, centering on intent, were confusing enough that by late Thursday the jury of nine women and three men asked the judge for clarification.

Orlandi said he was concerned that the inclusion of involuntary manslaughter offers a chance for jurors to compromise.

"It scares me," he said. "It's a fallback position."

The courtroom was filled for closing arguments in the weeklong trial. The defendant's wife, mother and two children took front-row seats, as close to Junta as possible. They were surrounded by Junta's six brothers and five sisters, along with spouses and other supporters.

Costin's family, escorted by a court-appointed victims' advocate, left before jury instructions were administered.

The jury must sift through nearly 100 articles of evidence and conflicting stories about what happened when Junta, a 275-pound truck driver, and Costin, a carpenter who weighed 156 pounds, fought at Burbank Ice Arena in Reading, just north of Boston.

No one disputes that the argument began at a children's pickup hockey game, with the sons of both men on opposing teams. Costin was skating with the boys and Junta was watching. When the play turned rough, Junta walked onto the ice to challenge Costin.

The men traded barbs and vulgarities. After the buzzer sounded to end the game, the pair began to scuffle in the locker room. A college-age hockey player separated the combatants, and Junta left.

Moments later, Junta returned. Outside the locker room, in an area near the skating rink, they resumed their fistfight in the final, fatal round.

Junta testified that Costin lunged at him and grabbed Junta's wrist as the two men fell to the ground. Junta said he left the arena thinking that Costin was "just resting" and insisted he delivered only three blows to Costin's head.

One of at least half a dozen children who were eyewitnesses, Quinlan Junta, the defendant's 12-year-old son, supported his father's story in testimony.

But a rink manager, Nancy Blanchard, said she saw Junta hit Costin at least six to 10 times. Prosecutor Calkins also introduced a photograph showing a bruise Blanchard said she received on her arm after Junta pushed her aside.

In his summation, Orlandi stressed that the encounter was "simply a fight." His client was attacked, he said.

During closing arguments, Junta spent much of the time staring down, often clutching a tissue and occasionally dabbing at his eyes.

Orlandi conceded that the outcome was tragic--so much so that "everyone loses in this tragedy."

But, he told jurors, "please don't let the tragedy impact on the facts of this case. . . . Send Tom Junta back to his hockey family and stop what's been going on here."

Calkins rejoined that "tears come very easily, ladies and gentlemen, at this point."

Everyone in the courtroom has sympathy for both sides, she went on. And, she said, listening to a 12-year-old testify in his father's manslaughter trial is painful.

But, reminding jurors to leave their sympathies at the courtroom door, she concluded, "It's also really hard to think of Michael Costin's children without a dad. But that's the reason that you were picked as jurors."

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