Teen pleads not guilty in Danvers teacher’s murder
SALEM — With grief-stricken family members of his alleged victim looking on, a 14-year-old boy pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges that he robbed, raped, and murdered popular Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer in October.
Philip D. Chism — who was shackled at the ankles and wore tan pants, a shirt and tie, and a dark sweater — is charged as an adult with murder and as a youthful offender with armed robbery and aggravated rape. He pleaded not guilty in Essex Superior Court to the murder charge, and the same plea was entered on his behalf to the additional counts.
Chism sat between his lawyers and stared straight ahead during the arraignment, and he looked at the floor as he was led away by court officers. A pretrial hearing is slated for Jan. 30. Chism is being held without bail.
No new details of the chilling case emerged in court, though the parties addressed several legal questions, including the issue of Chism’s mental competence.
Prosecutor Kate MacDougall said during the hearing that Chism’s competence does not appear to be a concern, but his public defender, Denise Regan, said she might raise the issue if it becomes appropriate to do so. Regan did not elaborate.
Chism, a student of Ritzer’s, allegedly followed her into a bathroom at the high school shortly before 3 p.m. Oct. 22 and slashed her throat, partially stripped her of her clothing, and robbed her of her cellphone, credit cards, and two driver’s licenses. Her body was then carted in a recycling bin to a wooded area behind the school, and investigators said she had been sexually assaulted with an unidentified object.
Prosecutors have said nothing about what may have motivated Chism, but court records say the teenager had recently moved to Danvers from Tennessee as part of his parents’ “stressful divorce” and became upset during class when Ritzer mentioned that state.
In a statement released after Wednesday’s arraignment, Ritzer’s family said they “remain devastated by the passing of our daughter and sister, Colleen.”
“We are, however, strengthened by the tremendous outpouring of love and support we have received from so many throughout the local community and beyond,” the family said. “We are especially touched by the number of tributes to Colleen throughout Andover and Danvers, many of which will benefit a scholarship fund in her name.”
Also Wednesday, the prosecution and defense discussed the question of whether to combine the adult murder charge with the juvenile rape and robbery counts as one unified case.
State law allows for such a move, and MacDougall, the prosecutor, said it would be appropriate in this case. But Regan said Chism is entitled to the rights and benefits afforded juveniles charged in that system.
Judge Howard Whitehead said he might seek guidance on the matter from the Appeals Court.
Outside court, Dan Murphy, an attorney acting as counsel to the Ritzers, was asked if it was difficult for the family to hear Chism plead not guilty.
“It’s indescribable,” said Murphy, who is also a family friend. “That’s how difficult it is.”