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Judge Tosses 14-Year-Old’s Confession to Killing his Danvers High School Teacher

An Essex County Superior Court judge today ruled that the Commonwealth cannot introduce a juvenile’s confession that he killed his high school math teacher in 2013 in his upcoming trial.

The Essex District Attorney has alleged that Philip Chism murdered and raped his math teacher at Danvers High School when he was just 14 years old.   According to multiple news outlets, Chism was taken into custody by the police during the investigation into the teacher’s disappearance.  Her body was discovered shortly thereafter in a wooded area near the high school.  Investigators have said that Chism is seen on surveillance video following the teacher into a bathroom and later leaving the bathroom alone.  Chism is later seen pulling a recycling barrel outside. The Commonwealth further alleges that Chism used the teacher’s credit card to go to a movie and buy fast food.

Following his arrest, Danvers police officers interviewed Chism.  According to court documents, Chism told the police that “very bad things” had happened and he didn’t “really have a sense of morals.”  Chism also told the police that he killed the teacher after she had insulted him and in slitting her throat, she had become very bloody.

Chism’s attorneys had filed a motion to suppress his statement, arguing that the police did not properly provide him with his Miranda rights, that he said he wanted to remain silent, and that the police manipulated his mother into urging him to make a statement.  The judge ruled that he was unable to conclude that Chism completely understood his right to refuse to talk to the police.  Further, Chism indicated twice that he was not interested in talking to the officers and he did not look like he was “fully engaged” when the officers told him his rights.  The judge also ruled that police investigators never explicitly told Chism’s mother, who was present during the interview, that her role was to help him understand his rights.

Before questioning an individual who is in custody, police officers are required to inform him of his Miranda rights: he has the right to remain silent; his statements can be used against him in court; he can have a lawyer with him as he is being interrogated; and a court-appointed lawyer will be given to him prior to questioning if he cannot afford to pay a lawyer.  When a defendant moves to suppress a confession made after Miranda rights have been given, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his rights.

During the interrogation of a child, the police are required to follow special procedures.  For children 14 years old and older, the police are required to give the child a “genuine opportunity” to consult with an “interested adult” (someone who has a relationship with the juvenile and is interested in the juvenile’s welfare).

Even without Chism’s statement, the Commonwealth appears to have a strong case.  If he is convicted of committing first-degree murder with extreme cruelty and atrocity, he will be sentenced to life in prison.  However, because he was a juvenile at the time of the crime, he would be eligible for parole after serving 30 years of his sentence, according to a recently-enacted Massachusetts law.

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