Jury selection is scheduled to begin today in Salem Superior Court in a case that alleges a high school freshman raped and killed his math teacher in Danvers, Massachusetts.
Philip Chism has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, aggravated rape, and armed robbery. He was 14 years old in October of 2013 when he allegedly stabbed to death the victim, Colleen Ritzer, in a school bathroom. Prosecutors contend that Chism then stuffed Ritzer’s body into a recycling bin and dragged it to nearby woods. According to the Commonwealth, Chism was seen on surveillance video following Ritzer into the bathroom while wearing a hood and gloves. He later left the bathroom by himself. When the police found Ritzer’s body, it was naked from the waist down and her throat had been slit. Chism was found later that night walking on a highway. Prosecutors have accused him of using Ritzer’s credit card to buy a movie ticket and fast food after he killed her.
After Chism was taken into custody by the police, he confessed to the crime. However, several months ago a superior court judge suppressed Chism’s statement, ruling that he may not have understood that he had the right to refuse to talk to the police. As a result, the prosecution will not be permitted to tell the jury about the confession.
Chism’s defense team had argued the extensive pretrial publicity would not allow him to receive a fair trial in Salem and asked the judge to move the case to another county, but the judge refused to do so. This type of motion (a motion to change venue) is almost never successful. Aaron Hernandez and Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev both requested that their respective trials be transferred out of jurisdiction. Neither request was granted.
It will likely take weeks for the attorneys to select the jury that will hear Chism’s case. The process of picking a jury is called empanelment. In minor cases, jury empanelment might only take 20 minutes. However, in serious cases such as this, it’s a much longer process. All of the potential jurors are required to complete juror questionnaires before appearing in court. For most cases, the questionnaires seek very basis information from each potential juror, such as his or her name, age, marital status, and employment history. The potential juror also provides information about his or her spouse and is required to disclose whether he or she has any prior history in the criminal justice system. However, where the defendant is charged with a serious crime such as murder or rape, jurors are often asked to provide much more information about their pasts. In rape cases, for example, jurors are asked if they have been victims of sexual assault and whether such an experience would interfere with their ability to fairly judge the defendant’s guilt or innocence. The goal of jury empanelment is to select people with open minds who will be able to consider the evidence and apply the law to the facts of the case.
It will be interesting to see how Chism’s attorneys defend this tragic case. Insanity defenses are almost never successful, but there may be no other choice here.