Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Dec. 1, 2015.
SALEM — Colleen Ritzer was likely alive when Philip Chism dragged her body into the woods behind Danvers High School and raped her with a branch, an assistant district attorney said in Essex Superior Court Monday after the prosecution rested its case.
Essex Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall argued that Chism, then 14, began his crime in the bathroom — strangling, raping, and stabbing his 24-year-old math teacher — but was interrupted when a student came into the bathroom.
"He didn't get a chance to finish what he started in the bathroom," MacDougall said, rebutting the defense's motion to dismiss certain charges against Chism. "He finished it in the woods."
Chism's lawyers, who have told the jury their client killed Ritzer during a psychotic break, have tried to show Ritzer died quickly in the girls bathroom, and before the assault in the woods.
They used that argument Monday afternoon as the basis for their request for Judge David Lowy to throw out the charge of unnatural rape against Chism. The charge was borne of the allegation that Chism used a stick to violate Ritzer in the woods. But if she were dead at the time, the unnatural rape charge should be dismissed, the defense argued.
"I think it's inescapable that she was killed in the bathroom," Chism's defense attorney, John Osler, told Lowy after the prosecution rested its case and the jury was dismissed for the day.
Chism, who was a freshman at the time, has also been charged with first-degree murder, robbery, and aggravated rape for allegedly assaulting her in the bathroom.
The prosecution rested its case Monday with grueling testimony from the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Ritzer. In response to Osler's motion to dismiss, MacDougall for the first time described in open court the prosecution's theory about why Chism attacked Ritzer in a girls bathroom at the school on Oct. 22, 2013.
"This was a sexually motivated homicide," she said.
The pathologist, Anna McDonald, said there were two causes of death — asphyxiation and the 16 stab wounds to the neck, three of which hit major blood vessels. It is not possible to say which killed her but McDonald said she believed the asphyxiation occurred first because the knife wounds to the neck were so severe it would have been too difficult to strangle her after stabbing her. However, McDonald said it is possible she could have survived the strangulation if she had not been stabbed.
During cross-examination, Osler used McDonald's testimony to suggest to the jury that Ritzer was most likely dead by the time Chism wheeled her into the woods in a recycling bin.
McDonald said she at the very least would have been unconscious from the asphyxiation and loss of blood.
"It's the remote edge of possibility" that she would have been alive, McDonald said.
After McDonald finished and the jury left for the day, Osler also asked Lowy to dismiss the robbery charges against Chism.
Lowy denied the defense's motion to dismiss the robbery charge — after the attack, Chism took Ritzer's purse and used her credit card to buy a movie ticket — but he said he would rule Tuesday morning on whether to throw out the unnatural rape charge.
Legal observers have said another defense strategy may be to show Ritzer died quickly so they can undermine the Commonwealth's contention that Chism acted with extreme atrocity and cruelty, one of the three theories underlying first-degree murder in Massachusetts. Chism has been charged under all three: felony murder, premeditation, and extreme atrocity and cruelty.
They said that if his lawyers can also show Chism kept desecrating Ritzer's body even after she was dead that could point to compulsion and an inability to control himself, which would buttress the defense argument that Chism was suffering from a psychotic disorder at the time.
The defense plans to call Dr. Richard Dudley Jr., a forensic psychiatrist, to testify about Chism's mental state that day.
On Tuesday, the defense plans to call people who knew Chism when he was living in Tennessee. Chism killed Ritzer the same year he moved to Boston from Tennessee, a change that Chism's mother said was extremely upsetting to the young teenager.