SALEM — Philip D. Chism murdered his math teacher and did “unspeakable things” to her in a Danvers High School bathroom in 2013, his defense attorney acknowledged Monday, blaming his lethal actions on a psychotic disorder he has faced since age 10.
The case, lawyer Denise Regan said, is about why the “well-behaved, quiet” teenager, now 16, committed such violent acts against Colleen Ritzer.
“The answer is he was severely mentally ill,” Regan told jurors in Essex Superior Court. “Unfortunately, a psychotic disorder in children is rarely noticed.”
The prosecution said Chism’s actions were the product of “deliberate premeditation” and that the freshman left for school on Oct. 22, 2013, with a ski mask, gloves, box cutter, and a “terrible purpose,” which was realized when he followed Ritzer into a girl’s bathroom after class.
“The defendant strangled Colleen,” said Essex Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall. “The defendant used the box cutter he had to cut or slice her throat.”
Over 11 minutes, MacDougall said, Chism stabbed the 24-year-old Ritzer at least 16 times, cutting major arteries and nicking her vertebra. He also raped her, she said.
Chism, who was 14 years old at the time of Ritzer’s death, is being tried as an adult for murder and as a youthful offender on aggravated rape and armed robbery charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
Regan has said that she plans to call Dr. Richard G. Dudley Jr., a psychiatrist, to testify about Chism’s mental state at the time of the attacks. According to Regan, Dudley plans to tell jurors that Chism is not criminally responsible for killing Ritzer.
If the jury finds Chism not guilty by reason of insanity, state law stipulates that he could be committed to a mental health institution.
If he is convicted of murder, Chism faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 to 25 years, according to the Essex district attorney’s office.
There are 17 jurors, 10 men, and 7 women, hearing the case. The Salem Superior Court jury selection process was delayed after Chism’s lawyers raised concerns about his mental health. Judge David A. Lowy ordered Chism to undergo an evaluation and declared him fit to stand trial earlier this month.
During opening statements, MacDougall, the prosecutor, gave an overview of Chism’s actions on the day of Ritzer’s death. What happened to Ritzer, MacDougall said, slowly came to light after both she and Chism were reported missing by their families.
After attacking Ritzer, Chism left the school carrying what appeared to be Ritzer’s pants, and he was seen in shrubs outside, MacDougall said. Chism then reentered the school with “something red” on one hand and wearing different clothes, she said.
Chism returned to Ritzer’s classroom, stole her school bag and tote, and fetched a recycling barrel, MacDougall said. He then returned to the girl’s bathroom for six minutes before leaving with the recycling barrel and heading for nearby woods, she said.
“The defendant spent the next 30 minutes in the woods, discarding evidence, doing what he wanted, and ultimately discarding Colleen,” MacDougall said. Ritzer’s body was found in the woods early the next morning, covered in leaves and having been violated with a tree branch, she said.
After discarding Ritzer’s body, a barefoot Chism, in bloodied jeans, returned to the school and changed into his soccer clothes, MacDougall said. He later went to a store, where he stole a knife, and then purchased a cheeseburger, soda, and ticket to the movie “Gravity” using Ritzer’s credit card, MacDougall said.
Topsfield police officers testified they found Chism early the next morning walking along Route 1. The officers said they were initially elated to locate the missing teen from Danvers, until they found a bloodied box cutter and women’s underwear in his backpack.
Chism told police the blood belonged to a girl who was buried in the woods and could not be helped, the officers testified.
Writing was scrawled on each side of the box cutter. “For Phil 1st tool,” read one message. The other said, “Don’t cut your arm off.”
Regan said Chism’s psychotic disorder went unnoticed for years as he grew up in Tennessee and immersed himself in the life of a friend’s family to “maintain the fiction that everything was fine.”
Two of his relatives have suffered from psychosis and Chism’s condition flared up when he moved to Danvers and lost his support system, she said.
Before Ritzer’s death, Regan said she politely asked Chism about his former life in Tennessee and his current life in Danvers. The question, she suggested, triggered latent anger in Chism.
Chism was recently diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and had started taking medication for it, Regan said. After he started the medication, Regan said, Chism met with his mother for the first time since his arrest.
The trial resumes Tuesday when Ritzer’s mother, Peggie, is expected to testify for the prosecution.