A Massachusetts teenager was found guilty Tuesday of raping and stabbing his math teacher to death in a high school bathroom in 2013.
Jurors didn’t believe Philip Chism’s claims of hearing commanding voices that told him to rape and murder 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer two years ago in a Danvers High School bathroom. Chism’s defense attorneys had presented an insanity defense, describing him as a severely mentally ill 14-year-old who was in the throes of psychosis when he killed Ritzer.
Chism, 16, wasconvicted of one count of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Because he’s a juvenile, the judge will have to consider parole after 15 or 25 years.
Chism was also found guilty of one count of aggravated rape and one count of armed robbery. Each of those counts carry the possibility of up to life in prison, though he will also be eligible for parole because of his age.
Being eligible for parole, however, does not mean Chism will ever be released. The parole board would have to agree that he was no longer a danger to society.
Tom Ritzer, Colleen’s father, acknowledged that fact in a statement he read to reporters about an hour after the verdict.
“While we are pleased with the verdict we are aware that the judicial process will continue,’’ he said. “Appeals will certainly be filed. And given the state’s guidelines for so-called juvenile sentencing, we may be forced to once again publicly endure this pain and suffering at parole hearings.’’
Peggie Ritzer reminded reporters of one of her daughter’s favorite quotes: “There is something good in every day.’’
“To celebrate our love for her, and in recognition of the many lives Colleen touched and continues to influence, despite the immense loss we were forced to endure,’’ she said, “we will carry on and do our very best to find the good in every day.’’
Find something good in every day 🙂 pic.twitter.com/8sLhZqjpgg— Colleen Ritzer (@msritzermath) October 5, 2013
Peggie Ritzer cried as the verdict was read. Her husband, Tom, held her tightly with an arm wrapped around her shoulders.
Prosecutors said Chism stabbed Ritzer to death with a box cutter after school on Oct. 22, 2013, raped her and then dragged her body into the woods nearby, where he raped her again with a tree branch. He was found walking down a road in Topsfield with a bloodied box cutter and a pair of Ritzer’s underwear hours after she was killed.
Jurors acquitted Chism of one aggravated rape count from an assault in the woods; a three-foot branch was found inside Ritzer. Defense attorneys had argued Ritzer was dead when that rape occurred, and under Massachusetts law, someone must be living to be sexually assaulted.
Chism’s mother, Dianna, doubled over at times as the guilty verdicts were read.
Now 16 years old, Chism will be held in a juvenile facility until he turns 18, then be transferred to an adult facility. There is a chance that with his severe mental health issues, he could still be sent to Bridgewater State Hospital, similar to other mentally ill killers.
A status conference on Dec. 22 will decide when Chism will be sentenced. The conviction will automatically be appealed. Defense attorney Denise Regan declined to comment as she left court.
Chism still faces attempted murder charges in Suffolk County stemming from an attack on a Department of Youth Services counselor in Boston in June 2014, a little more than seven months after Ritzer’s murder. The circumstances were eerily similar to Ritzer’s killing — except the female counselor escaped alive.
Over 13 days of testimony in Essex County, jurors heard competing versions of Chism. Defense attorneys and their experts said he was a boy who had slowly been deteriorating since he was 10 years old, when he began hearing voices that commanded him to act. A move to Danvers from Tennessee just a few months before the attack was the trigger that led to a psychotic break and Ritzer’s murder, they said.
Prosecutors, though, said Chism was a liar who was faking his symptoms, acting mentally ill only after he was caught. Psychologists testified for the prosecution about tests that indicated Chism was malingering – faking or exaggerating his symptoms.
He came to school on Oct. 22, 2013 with a box cutter, mask and gloves, the tools he would use in his premeditated attack on Ritzer, they said.
In an impassioned closing argument, Essex County Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall told jurors that Chism had a “terrible, terrible purpose’’ that day.
He was not a mentally ill child, she said. He was not someone powerless to the voices in his head.
“The only person who was powerless in the bathroom and in those woods was Colleen Ritzer,’’ she said.
Scenes from the Philip Chism trial: