What did Chism do?
Chism killed 24-year-old Colleen E. Ritzer, a popular math teacher at Danvers High School. Now 16, he was a 14-year-old freshman on Oct. 22, 2013, when the killing took place.
Chism attacked Ritzer inside a girls’ bathroom inside Danvers High School and then hauled her into nearby woods, where he violated her with a tree branch.
In opening statements, the defense acknowledged that Chism killed Ritzer. “It’s not in question who did these terrible acts,” said Chism defense attorney Denise Regan. But she argued that Chism was insane at the time of the crime.
The jury ultimately disagreed. The panel of eight men and four women convicted Chism Tuesday of first-degree murder, one count of armed robbery, and one count of aggravated rape. He was acquitted of one other count of aggravated rape.
Was Chism insane during the crime?
During the trial, mental health experts testified for each side.
Dr. Richard G. Dudley Jr., who was called by the defense, testified that Chism heard voices in his head that controlled his actions, and that Chism likely was afflicted with early-onset schizophrenia that went undetected before the attack on Ritzer.
Nancy Hebben, a neuropsychologist, testified for the prosecution that a battery of tests administered to Chism showed that he had feigned mental illness. She said she couldn’t tell whether he was completely faking illness or really was ill and exaggerating its intensity.
Defense attorney Denise Regan asked the jury in her closing argument, “What other than overpowering mental illness could cause Philip Chism to do these acts?”
But prosecutor Kate MacDougall had the opposite take.
“There is not one single person in this courtroom who wants to believe that 14 year-old boy could have done this and not be crazy,’’ MacDougall said. “But doing something so awful does not make you crazy.”
The jury ended up rejecting the defense’s view of the case.
Why was so much attention paid to exactly when Ritzer died?
One of the two aggravated rape charges Chism faced stemmed from the attack on Ritzer in the woods in which she was violated with a tree branch.
The key question was whether Ritzer, who had been attacked in the bathroom, was still alive during this attack.
Kate MacDougall, the prosecutor, told jurors Ritzer was alive.
Defense attorney Denise Regan asked jurors to find Chism not guilty on this charge.
Jurors asked a question about this charge. Ultimately, they acquitted Chism.
What would have happened if the jury had found Chism not guilty by reason of insanity?
Superior Court Judge David Lowy told jurors that Chism, if found not guilty, would be sent to a state mental health facility for 60 days of observation, and during that time, prosecutors could ask a judge to involuntarily commit him to Bridgewater State Hospital or another facility. The first commitment would be limited to six months. He would be examined at that point, and then annually thereafter, to determine whether he is a threat to himself or others.
“There is no limit to the number of such renewed orders of commitments as long as the defendant continues to be mentally ill and dangerous,’’ Lowy told jurors, according to a copy of his remarks released to the court. “If these conditions do continue, the defendant may remain committed for the duration of his life.’’
Bridgewater State Hospital is operated by the Department of Correction.
In the end, a mental health facility turned out not to be in Chism’s future.
What is the maximum sentence Chism could face?
The focus now turns to what prison sentence Chism will receive. First-degree murder carries a mandatory life without parole sentence for adults. But Chism was 14 years old when Ritzer was killed and under current Massachusetts law, defendants between the ages of 14 and 18 cannot be given the same sentence as an adult.
Chism killed Ritzer in 2013 and under state law in force at that time, he faces a life sentence, but with the possibility of parole after serving 15 to 25 years.
The aggravated rape charges and the armed robbery charges each carry sentences of up to life, but Lowy has some discretion to fashion a sentence based on a fixed number of years. If Lowy sentences him to life for any of these three charges, Chism would be eligible for parole in 15 years.
Lowy can impose the sentence for all the charges to be served at the same time, which is known in the courts as a concurrent sentence.
The judge is also free to impose consecutive sentences, or what is known as “from and after” sentences. The worst-case scenario for Chism would be a string of consecutive sentences that could keep him in prison for decades.