By Denise Lavoie
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The father of a young hockey player was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Friday for beating another man to death at their sons’ practice as a horrified crowd begged him to stop.
Thomas Junta, 44, showed little reaction as the verdict was read, though several of his brothers sobbed and hugged other family members as he was led out of the courtroom.
The burly truck driver had been tried on the more-serious charge of manslaughter. He faces up to 20 years in prison, but as a first-time offender will probably be sentenced to three to five years during a Jan. 25 hearing.
The closely watched case became a symbol of what some have said is a growing wave of parental violence at youth sporting events. The trial was carried on national cable networks and the case dominated talk radio.
Junta claimed he killed Michael Costin, 40, in self-defense after they argued over rough play during the practice on July 5, 2000.
Junta said he tried to avoid coming to blows with Costin, but fought back after the 156-pound Costin threw a “sucker punch” at him, jumped on him and continued to hit and kick him after the two men fell to the floor. Junta claimed he landed just “three off-balance” punches.
But two witnesses testified Junta struck Costin repeatedly in the head while pinning him to the thinly matted floor of the Burbank Ice Arena in Reading. The two women said Junta ignored their screams to stop and insistence that “you’re going to kill him!”
Other witnesses, including Junta’s 12-year-old son, Quinlan, corroborated Junta’s claim that he threw only three punches.
Earlier Friday, Costin’s father put his hand on Junta’s shoulder in the hallway of the courthouse and told him he held no animosity.
“I don’t hate you. I forgive you,” Gus Costin, 68, said he told him. “He nodded at me and said, ‘thank you.’ “
Medical experts for both sides said Costin died of a ruptured artery in his neck, which caused severe brain damage. They differed sharply on how much force – in this case, how many blows – was needed to cause the fatal injury.
The fatal fight was witnessed by about a dozen children, including Junta’s son and Costin’s three sons. All four boys, ages 11 through 14 – as well as Costin’s 11-year-old daughter – sat in the courtroom during closing arguments Thursday.
The confrontation between Costin and Junta began after Junta became angry about slashing and checking at what was supposed to be a non-contact scrimmage, which Costin was supervising. Junta said he saw another player elbow his son in the face.
Witnesses said that when Junta yelled at Costin for not controlling the rough play, he snapped: “That’s hockey.” The two men then got into a scuffle near the locker rooms that was quickly broken up by bystanders.
Junta went outside, but returned moments later. He said he came back to pick up his son and his friends, who were still inside the locker room.
Nancy Blanchard, a rink worker, said Junta shoved her aside and headed straight for Costin.
Junta, however, testified that Costin jumped him and he was forced to defend himself. He said he delivered three quick blows, then stopped when he saw Costin put his hand up over his face.
Prosecutors repeatedly called attention to the barrel-chested Junta’s size – 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds. Costin was 6 feet, 156 pounds.
In his closing argument, Junta’s lawyer called him a “gentle giant” who took a “serious thrashing” at the hands of Costin during their first scuffle. Junta had a 4-inch scratch on his face, a ripped shirt, cuts on his arms and scratches on his legs from where he said Costin kicked him with his skates.
Junta, who shed tears at times during his testimony, said he left the rink without knowing how gravely he had injured Costin.
“I thought when he laid back down that he was just resting,” he said, his voice choking and chin trembling.
Costin never regained consciousness. He died the next day.
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