Judge: Teen charged with killing high school math teacher is competent to stand trial

The case has been on hold since Oct. 15, after Philip Chism’s attorneys raised questions about his competency.

Philip Chism in Salem Superior Court earlier this year. —AP

A judge ruled Wednesday that a teenager charged with murdering his high school math teacher is competent to stand trial after a 20-day hospital evaluation.

Phillip Chism, 16, is accused of raping and killing his Danvers High School math teacher two years ago in October 2013. Colleen Ritzer had asked the student to stay after class. Her body was later found in the woods behind the school.

Chism’s trial should have been at its midway point this week, but jury selection abruptly stopped on Oct. 13 after Chism’s attorneys raised questions about their client’s competency. Chism was refusing to enter the courtroom and later told a psychologist that he hoped someone would kill him. He also said a voice told him not to trust his defense attorneys.

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Judge David A. Lowy said Chism is competent to stand trial after reading a 67-page competency evaluation report filed Tuesday. That means Chism understands the charges against him and the court proceedings and can assist in his own defense.

During the hearing, the tall, lanky Chism sat quietly next to his attorneys, looking straight at the judge as the court discussed when his murder trial would start. He’d gotten a haircut since the court last saw him, and he tapped his fingers gently on his knee.

In court on Wednesday, defense attorneys requested a change of venue, citing what they called inflammatory statements about Chism made by prosecutors in court during jury selection. Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall has said Chism was malingering and manipulating the court.

MacDougall maintained that those statements were factual as evidenced by the competency report.

Lowy turned down the change of venue request, saying there isn’t enough information so far that the case can’t be tried in Essex County.

“What struck me in the (juror) questionnaires was how little information most jurors had about the case,’’ he said.

What’s left to decide is when the trial will actually start, and which of the 16 jurors previously selected for trial can still serve. Defense attorneys had wanted to start over from scratch, with a whole new jury pool, but the judge disagreed.

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Opening statements could begin as early as next week.

Defense attorney Denise Regan said she was concerned about the availability of her key witness, Dr. Richard Dudley. She called him the “kingpin of the defense case.’’

“He’s the person who gives the opinion that Mr. Chism lacks criminal responsibility,’’ she said.

Defense attorneys have indicated that they’ll pursue an insanity defense, judging by questions they presented during jury selection.

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