A Salem Superior Court jury today convicted 16-year-old Philip Chism of first-degree murder in the grisly stabbing death of his math teacher two years ago.
Chism was 14 when he attacked 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer inside a Danvers High School girls’ bathroom. He strangled her, stabbed her with a box cutter, and raped her before loading her body into a school recycling bin and dragging her outside and into the nearby woods. Once there, Chism dumped Ritzer’s body on the ground and sexually assaulted her with a tree branch. Ritzer’s body was found shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Chism had stolen Ritzer’s credit card and left the scene. He used the credit card to buy fast food and pay for a movie ticket at a Danvers theater.
Police quickly focused their attention on Chism and he was arrested and charged with murder, two counts of aggravated rape, and armed robbery. The Commonwealth elected to try Chism as an adult, and his trial began last month in superior court following months of pretrial litigation. One issue that is sure to be the focus of an appeal is the trial judge’s rejection of a defense motion to change venue. Defense attorneys argued Chism would not be able to receive a fair trial in Salem Superior Court because of the extensive pretrial publicity. However, the judge declined to move the location of the trial.
There was never any dispute regarding the identity of the killer. In her opening statement, Chism’s attorney conceded that he had killed Ritzer but argued he was not criminally responsible at the time of the crime. Lack of criminal responsibility is a defense in Massachusetts that means the defendant was either: (1) unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct; or (2) unable to conform his behavior to the requirements of the law. This is more commonly known as an insanity defense. The defense team called medical experts to testify at the trial that Chism was severely mentally ill and may have been suffering from early onset schizophrenia. The Commonwealth contended the defendant was faking a mental illness and knew exactly what he was doing when he killed Ritzer, a point supported by the fact that Chism put on gloves before attacking her and later changed out of his bloody clothes.
Chism was acquitted of one of the aggravated rape charges. In order to convict a defendant of rape, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim was alive at the time of the attack. There was conflicting testimony regarding whether Ritzer was still alive when she was dumped in the woods. Therefore, although Chism was convicted of raping Ritzer in the bathroom, he was found not guilty of raping her with the tree branch in the woods.
Chism will be housed in a Department of Youth Services facility until his 18th birthday. He will then be sent to a state prison to serve the remainder of his sentence. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled recently that a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Therefore, Chism will be eligible for parole in as soon as 15 years.