SALEM — Three weeks ago, Philip D. Chism said he wished to be shot in the courtroom where he is being tried for allegedly murdering his math teacher, or commit suicide, according to a psychologist who interviewed him. He also claimed a voice instructed him not to trust his lawyers.
But after undergoing a 20-day mental health evaluation, Chism, 16, returned Wednesday to Essex Superior Court where Judge David A. Lowy declared he was fit to stand trial based on a psychiatrist’s report. Jury selection is set to resume Thursday.
“Mr. Chism has sufficient, present ability to consult with his attorney with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him,” Lowy said.
Chism appeared in court for the first time since Oct. 15 with a new haircut and seemed engaged with the attorneys he said he doubted.
At one point, Lowy took a break so Chism could consult his lawyers about potential jurors. The teenager reviewed papers and spoke with his three attorneys.
Chism’s demeanor stood in stark contrast to his disposition at the start of jury selection when he slouched at the defendant’s table with his head hung low and seemed to remain motionless for hours.
Prosecutors allege Chism was 14 years old when he raped and murdered Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer in October 2013. He is being tried as an adult on a murder charge and was indicted as a youthful offender on rape and armed robbery accusations. He has pleaded not guilty.
While he is now considered fit for trial, a defendant’s competency is a fluid issue and has delayed justice for years in some cases, according to some legal experts and court records.
Denise Regan, a defense attorney for Chism, said Wednesday in court that she was concerned about his “maintaining competency” and asked Lowy to end proceedings at 1 p.m. each day, take breaks every two hours, and limit the number of people allowed near her client.
The conditions were recommended by Dr. Virginia Merritt, a psychiatrist who prepared a 67-page report on Chism, court records show. Her report was impounded.
“The long days are definitely a problem with Mr. Chism,” Regan said.
Lowy did not rule on the request.
Randy Chapman, a criminal defense attorney who has attended some of the proceedings, said he expected Chism to be found competent. His conduct before the evaluation, which included reports of him banging his head on the floor of a padded cell and refusing to enter the courtroom, offered proof that Chism understood what was happening, Chapman said.
“One could argue that his behavior was the quintessential evidence of competency,” he said.
Bernard Grossberg, lawyer for a Boston man who randomly murdered two with a shotgun in 1996, called the legal standard for competency low. “It’s very difficult, unless the guy is a screaming lunatic, to be found not competent,’’ he said.
Under state law, defendants who are declared unfit can be ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation. Such a finding also gives prosecutors or a mental health facility the authority to ask the court to commit a defendant for up to six months, and thereafter, for up to a year at a time.
Some defendants awaiting trial on murder charges because of competency issues include Donald Rudolph, who is accused of killing his sister, mother, and his mother’s boyfriend in Weymouth in 2011, and Joseph Beatty, who allegedly killed his girlfriend in Quincy in 2009, according to the Norfolk district attorney’s office.
In 2013, a judge dismissed charges of parental kidnapping and lying to investigators filed against a Lynn father believed to be the last person to see his 5-year-old son alive. Ernesto Gonzalez had been declared unfit to stand trial and remains at Bridgewater State Hospital, said defense attorney Russell Sobelman.
He said in many cases where defendants lack competency, mental health problems are to blame for a client’s inability to understand the legal proceedings and help craft a defense.
Gonzalez, he said, still is unable to assist him.
“You ask questions and you don’t really get any answers,” Sobelman said.
He said criminal charges against defendants who fail to meet the standards for competency must be dismissed after they have been committed for at least half of their potential sentences. Many defendants, however, are found fit for trial, Sobelman said.
“The evaluator really has to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant truly cannot assist his or her attorney,” he said.