The recent ruling that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder are now eligible to seek parole after 15 years could affect the trial and sentencing of the Danvers teen charged with the murder of a local school teacher, potentially delaying the proceedings for more than a year, a judge suggested last week.
During a hearing where Philip Chism, now 15, was arraigned on a new count of aggravated rape, Salem Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead raised the issue of how this and two other “youthful offender” indictments will be handled.
Chism, who is charged in the Oct. 22 slaying of 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer of Andover said nothing during the brief hearing. Through his attorneys he waived the reading of the charge. A plea of not guilty was entered to the new count of aggravated rape. A grand jury indicted Chism on the new count of rape last month after receiving the results of DNA tests.
Chism through his lawyer is asking for the murder charge to be tried separately from the other charges. Prosecutors want to join the cases together and try all of them in Superior Court.
In the past, prosecutor Kate MacDougall acknowledged, the outcome of the lesser charges would have been secondary to the murder charge, which carried an automatic sentence of life without parole.
But since the Christmas Eve ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court finding that juveniles are entitled to parole eligibility after 15 years, the sentences imposed on other counts could impact how long someone serves. And sentences for adult offenders are longer than those imposed on juveniles.
In addition to the first-degree murder charge, for which Chism was indicted on as an adult, Chism is also facing the rape and robbery charges as a youthful offender.
Whitehead said he’s found no legal guidance for how the offenses should be handled.
“The youthful offender indictments are probably contemplated to be treated, as the murder indictment, as an adult offense,” he said, “but I can see the argument the other way.”
Since there is no precedent on the issue, Whitehead said he is considering asking the Appeals Court to issue an opinion. He acknowledged that it’s possible that an answer could take up to a year, delaying the trial in the case.
A coalition of legislators, led in part by state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, has filed legislation seeking to increase from 15 to 35 the number of years juveniles convicted of murder must serve before being eligible for parole.
Both prosecutors and Chism’s lawyers had some reservations about delaying the trial.
The prosecutor, in particular, was concerned about the possible delay and urged the judge to consider moving the case forward. She asked for time to consult with other attorneys in her office, but acknowledged that “given the state of the law prior to now, there wasn’t much purpose indicting on a youthful offender charge,” because it wouldn’t affect a sentence of life without parole.
Similarly, Chism’s lawyers were also concerned about delaying the case. But they believe Chism is entitled to separate proceedings.
Also during the hearing, MacDougall told the judge she has turned over most of the evidence available in the case so far, including a copy of a hard drive containing all of the surveillance video from the school. A notice filed also indicates that the autopsy report has been completed and turned over.
Not complete is a forensic examination of Chism’s cellphone, which is being reviewed for possible evidence, including any photos that might have been taken during the crime.
Prosecutors want to know if Chism “memorialized” the crime in photos taken with his smartphone. Such photos could explain why Ritzer’s body was both covered with leaves, in an apparent attempt to conceal it, and also posed in a sexual manner. Investigators say it is “not unusual” for individuals who have killed someone, particularly in cases involving sexual violence, to document the act through photos, audio or video, “for further humiliation of the victim or later viewing, for guilty relief or for enjoyment.”
And it could also explain why Chism attempted to destroy the phone by smashing it. Chism told investigators on the night of his arrest that he’d smashed the phone in order to disable its GPS and the ability of investigators to track him — something investigators note could have been more easily done by simply shutting it off, or discarding the battery.
“... Chism’s explanation for attempting to destroy his phone, along with the other minimizations and denials in his interview, seems doubtful,” trooper Steven Buccheri wrote. “Given the other information ... particularly the evidence of significant planning in this case and sexual offenders’ proclivity to memorialize their crimes, it is likely that he destroyed the phone in order to hide incriminating evidence contained on it, including, but not limited to evidence of his planning, motive and any memorialization of his crime.”
Chism denied sexually assaulting Ritzer when questioned after his arrest, and claimed to have stabbed her just twice allegedly in a second-floor bathroom of Danvers High School.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for April 7.