Two years ago when a popular Danvers High School teacher was found murdered and raped in woods near the school, prosecutors said the attack was a brutal act of violence perpetrated by a ninth-grader who had recently moved to the area from Tennessee.
Now as the trial of 16-year-old Philip D. Chism approaches, with the start of jury selection Wednesday, some legal experts said a key part of the defense will not be whether the teenager committed the crime, but what his mental state was when Colleen Ritzer was killed in 2013.
“I think everyone will agree to a large degree on the facts even though he’s presumed innocent,” said Kim McLaurin, an associate dean at Suffolk University Law School who runs a clinic on defending juveniles for Suffolk students.
“In my opinion the prosecution can make out a case” for first-degree murder, she said. “What the defense may try to do is argue that this wasn’t planned, that he’s an impetuous teenager using that adolescent brain.”
Defense lawyers have said they plan to offer testimony about Chism’s mental state at the time, but have not revealed specifics. His lawyer, Denise Regan, declined to comment Tuesday.
According to court documents, the defense plans to call as an expert witness Dr. Richard G. Dudley Jr., a New York City psychiatrist who evaluated Colin Ferguson, convicted of killing six people on a Long Island commuter train in 1993.
McLaurin suggested Chism’s attorneys might follow lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and forgo efforts to dispute the prosecution’s evidence in favor of trying to humanize their client.
“The jury is going to want to hear some reason why,” she said.
Following a ruling by the judge, jurors won’t hear Chism’s statements to Danvers police in which he reportedly admitted to killing Ritzer.
The list of potential witnesses is four pages long, and includes police officers, high school students, medical and psychological experts, and state Department of Youth Services staff members who were present when Chism allegedly attacked a female clinician on June 2, 2014, in Dorchester.
Ritzer’s parents, Peggie and Tom, are also potential witnesses. They declined to comment Tuesday through a spokesman.
Prosecutors allege Chism, then 14, killed Ritzer in a school bathroom on the afternoon of Oct. 22, 2013, stabbing her 16 times before putting her body in a recycling bin and dragging it into the woods near the school. He is also accused of sexually assaulting her.
Chism allegedly left a folded handwritten note near her body that read: “I hate you all.”
He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, aggravated rape, and armed robbery.
Chism is being tried as an adult, and is among the first teenagers in Massachusetts to be prosecuted for first-degree murder since the state Supreme Judicial Court eliminated sentences of life without parole for juveniles. An earlier ruling from the US Supreme Court declared the punishment for juveniles to be unconstitutional.
About 110 potential jurors are expected to report to Essex Superior Court in Salem on Wednesday, said jury commissioner Pamela J. Wood. Additional rounds of prospective jurors could go before the judge, prosecutors, and defense lawyers this week and next week, Wood said, until 12 jurors and four alternates are chosen.
During the screening, Wood said, “they will be told about the case and asked to complete confidential questionnaires and go through the statutory questions, like ‘Do you know any of the parties or the witnesses?’ ”
Testimony is expected to last four to six weeks, according to the Essex district attorney’s office, which is prosecuting Chism.
Wendy Kaplan, clinical associate professor at Boston University School of Law, said the defense team will probably seek jurors who would be open to considering research that has found juvenile brains are not fully developed. Jurors who are also parents, Kaplan said, might be more likely to consider that science.
“Particularly in the frontal lobe area and executive functioning, kids don’t have the same maturity and the same ability to make decisions in the same way we hope responsible adults do,” Kaplan said. “He is a juvenile and the jury should not be looking at him in the same way they do an adult.”
McLaurin and Kaplan predicted the defense will not try to mount an insanity defense. One reason, McLaurin said, is that there are probably some witnesses who may undercut the defense by testifying that Chism was a highly functioning teenager.
Rather, McLaurin said, the defense might capitalize on stresses that Chism faced as a result of moving to Danvers after his parents had a difficult divorce.
“They’re just trying to gain some sympathy wherever they can find it, and that’s going to be difficult in this situation,” she said.Laura Crimaldi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.