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Philip Chism refuses to return to court during murder trial

Philip Chism sat Tuesday in Salem Superior Court.
Philip Chism sat Tuesday in Salem Superior Court.Ken Yuszkus/The Salem News/AP/Pool

SALEM — The murder and rape trial of Philip D. Chism was halted Tuesday after the 16-year-old defendant refused to return to the courtroom, allegedly declaring from the courthouse lockup that he was buckling under stress and was “about to explode.”

The development came on the second day of testimony in the case of Chism, who is accused of murdering math teacher Colleen Ritzer in a girls bathroom at Danvers High School in 2013.

A similar episode last month delayed jury selection for three weeks while Chism was evaluated for his competency to stand trial.

In the latest interruption, court officer Paul Gaeta said Chism would not enter the courtroom in Essex Superior Court after a recess.

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“I can’t take this anymore,’’ Gaeta quoted Chism as telling him. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Peggie Ritzer, mother of slain teacher Colleen Ritzer, testified Tuesday.
Peggie Ritzer, mother of slain teacher Colleen Ritzer, testified Tuesday.Ken Yuszkus/The Salem News/AP/Pool

Defense lawyer Denise Regan gave a similar account of her exchange with Chism.

“He’s shaking. He’s twitching. He’s mumbling,’’ Regan said. “He said he’s about to explode and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.”

She asked Judge David A. Lowy to order a clinician to evaluate Chism to determine whether he was fit to continue with the proceedings.

Lowy called for a recess and said he planned to observe Chism himself. After checking on him out of view of courtroom spectators, Lowy said a mumbling Chism was on the lockup floor with his eyes closed. He said Chism refused to speak with him or his lawyers.

The jury was sent home for the day. Lowy asked them to return Wednesday and instructed them not to speculate about Chism’s absence.

“You cannot know the reason,” he said.

Lowy summoned Dr. Virginia Merritt, a psychiatrist, to the courthouse to examine Chism. Merritt wrote a 67-page report on Chism’s mental state after Lowy ordered him to undergo a competency evaluation last month at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

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Based on her findings, which are impounded, Lowy declared Chism fit to stand trial and resumed jury selection earlier this month. Opening statements and the first witnesses testified Monday.

Chism’s refusal to enter the courtroom, Lowy said, did not appear to be a sign that the teenager had lost his ability to understand the proceedings and help his defense team. Rather, the judge said Chism appeared to balking in protest.

“I don’t have anything before me to stop this trial and go down that road,” Lowy said.

Court adjourned Tuesday around 4:10 p.m. without an update on Chism’s condition. Proceedings are scheduled to resume Wednesday.

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.

The defense has said it plans to mount an insanity defense. During opening statements, Regan told jurors that Chism was recently diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and is being treated with medication.

The prosecution says Chism acted with “deliberate premeditation” when he brought a ski mask, box cutter, and gloves to school on Oct. 22, 2013, and attacked Ritzer after class.

Chism refused to leave the courtroom lockup while Danvers Police Officer Justin Ellenton was preparing to resume his testimony.

Ellenton, an officer in a canine unit, went to Danvers High the night of Oct. 22, 2013, to search for Ritzer, who had been reported missing by her family after she did not return home from work. Ellenton described how his police dog, Falco, discovered a recycling barrel, blood-soaked sneaker, and purple tote in the woods near the school.

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The prosecution alleges that after attacking Ritzer in the school bathroom, Chism used a recycling barrel to take her body to the woods and then violated her with a tree branch. Investigators found her body buried under leaves early on Oct. 23, 2013.

Ellenton testified that when he looked into the barrel, he saw blood on the walls and noticed several books inside were also soaked with blood.

Essex Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall speculated that Chism might have refused to return to the courtroom because he knew the prosecution planned to present more evidence related to the recycling barrel.

“I’m very concerned about the timing of this,” she said. “He is not in charge of this process. I’m concerned he thinks he is.”

Earlier in the day, Ritzer’s mother, Peggie, testified about her daughter, whom she described as a creature of habit who decided to become a teacher while she was still in preschool.

She said that when Ritzer did not return home to Andover at the usual time, she thought, at worst, her eldest daughter had been in a car crash.


John R. Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.