Chism sentenced to at least 40 years; family calls it ‘unacceptable’
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SALEM — A judge on Friday sentenced teenager Philip D. Chism to spend at least 40 years in prison for raping and murdering his Danvers High School teacher, spurring a swift rebuke from the woman's family, who criticized the state's highest court for a 2013 ruling that prevents harsher penalties for youthful killers.
Superior Court Judge David Lowy ordered Chism to serve life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years for killing 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer, and to also serve two 40-year prison terms concurrently for her rape and armed robbery.
Chism cannot seek release until he has served at least 40 years in prison, at which time he will be 54. He is credited for time already served.
The sentencing came after an emotional day of statements from Ritzer's relatives and friends.
"I hate Colleen's killer and will never forgive him. He is evil, pure evil, and he must be punished,'' Ritzer's father, Tom, told the courtroom in Essex Superior Court.
In all, nine of Ritzer's relatives and friends described the loss they felt as a result of her tragic death. The friends and relatives wore pink, Colleen Ritzer's favorite color, and many who gave victim impact statements cried during their presentations.
Ritzer's sister, Laura, who was a senior in high school when the murder occurred, said she "will never forget what happened that night."
"I knew my life was never going to be the same, but in my mind I wasn't going to accept what happened. I lived my life hoping that this was just all a bad dream that I will wake up from some day," she said. "I sat in my house every afternoon hoping Colleen would walk in the door and come home from school. I wish I could go back in time and protect my sister."
Photographs of Ritzer in different stages of her life were displayed on a large screen in the courtroom. The photos included Ritzer as a toddler with her preschool teacher, Laura Fogarty, and then at age 8 when she was a flower girl in Fogarty's wedding.
Ritzer was living a lifelong dream of being a teacher when she was killed. On the day she died, Tom Ritzer recalled, he went to Danvers High to look for his daughter when she did not come home after school.
During Chism's trial, her father said, he realized how close he had been to Ritzer during those moments and how he had traversed the same path her killer did. He recalled the horror from Chism's trial of seeing surveillance video of his daughter walking toward the bathroom where she was killed.
"I just want to tell her on the video, 'Stop! Go back! Don't go in the bathroom,' " he said.
"A dad's job is to protect his family. I didn't protect Colleen," Tom Ritzer said. "A dad's job is to fix things. I would do anything to fix this for Colleen."
After sentencing, Ritzer's mother, Peggie, said her family felt betrayed that Chism, 17, could not be sentenced to life without parole because a state Supreme Judicial Court decision abolished such punishments for juveniles.
The high court's ruling, which was retroactive, was issued two months after Ritzer was killed. Her family sought three life sentences without parole for Chism, who was convicted last year of murdering, raping, and robbing Ritzer at Danvers High on Oct. 22, 2013.
He was 14 at the time.
"Today's sentence is unacceptable and the laws must be changed," Peggie Ritzer said at a news conference. "Colleen's family, friends, students, and those who admired her have been given a life sentence without parole, but not the individual who committed the heinous act. This is wrong and unjust."
Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, whose office prosecuted Chism, said the SJC ruling means the Ritzer family "cannot the close the book on this case."
"At some point in time, [Ritzer's family] will sit at a Parole Board hearing, perhaps multiple times, and return to the most horrific and devastating event of their lives," Blodgett said.
He said he believes people convicted of first-degree murder should face life in prison without parole.
Lowy said he imposed the most severe sentence for the murder that he could under state law.
"In imposing a sentence for the rape at a date in excess of the parole eligibility date for the murder, the court is not suggesting that the rape, as heinous as it was, was more egregious than the murder," Lowy said. "Rather, this court is constitutionally obligated to set a parole date of no more than 25 years for her murder."
Chism stood impassively as the penalty was imposed while his mother, Diana, cried softly. She issued a statement through Chism's lawyers.
"Words can't express the amount of pain and sorrow these past two and a half years have been,'' Diana Chism wrote. "However, there is no one who has suffered more than the Ritzer family. My utmost esteem, prayers, and humble respect is with them today as they continue their journey to heal.''
Ritzer's father said he hoped Governor Charlie Baker and state lawmakers would act to "remedy this decision that extends rights to criminals."
"Allowing this individual parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for Colleen's loved ones," Tom Ritzer said. "The notion of 'second chance' should not be applicable in this case."
After the SJC decision, the state Legislature enacted new punishments for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder, but those rules do not apply to Chism because they became law after Ritzer's murder.
Chism's defense lawyer, Denise Regan, declined to comment after sentencing. Chism still faces charges in Suffolk County where he is accused of attacking a state Department of Youth Services worker in June 2014 in an assault that resembled the one on Ritzer. The next court date in that case is March 23.
At Chism's murder trial, prosecutors said he followed Ritzer after school into a girls bathroom where he raped and slashed her with a box cutter. He later put Ritzer's body in a recycling bin and wheeled it into woods near the school.
Police found the body early the next day. She was nude from the waist down and had 16 stab wounds. Nearby, investigators found a note reading, "I hate you all."
The defense acknowledged that Chism murdered and raped Ritzer, but argued that the teenager suffered from undiagnosed mental illness and was in the throes of a psychotic breakdown during the attack.
His lawyers asked Chism be permitted to seek parole after 15 years or no later than his 40th birthday. Prosecutors pushed for him to be locked up until he was at least 64.
In crafting a sentence, Lowy said he considered Chism's age, the possibility of rehabilitation, and science about adolescent brain development.
"While this court is constitutionally required to consider that there is always the possibility of redemption, even if the defendant were to live a perfect life from this moment on, his repeated stab wounds to Colleen Ritzer's young body will remain indelible . . . until the last person who knew Colleen Ritzer takes his or her last breath."