EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 4, 2013

Chism pleads not guilty in slaying

Prosecutor: DNA among evidence in Colleen Ritzer murder case

By Julie Manganis
Staff writer

---- — DANVERS — Philip Chism, 14, said just two words during his arraignment on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated rape and armed robbery yesterday: “Not guilty.”

But a prosecutor yesterday said the evidence includes not only a statement made by Chism after he was taken into custody following the Oct. 22 slaying of Danvers High School math teacher Colleen Ritzer, 24, but DNA that is still awaiting testing.

That testing will take place as soon as a defense expert is available to observe the testing, the prosecutor told the judge.

And if Chism’s defense team is mulling an insanity defense for the teen, prosecutors indicated that they are ready to argue that they see no mental-health issue.

“Nothing in this investigation or in the defendant’s statement to police suggests that there is any issue with his mental health,” said prosecutor Kate MacDougall in response to a question by the judge.

Defense lawyer Denise Regan, who had previously filed motions for funds to hire a forensic psychologist to meet with Chism, said only that if she plans to raise mental health as a defense, she will notify prosecutors, as required by law.

Little other new information emerged from yesterday’s proceeding in Salem Superior Court, where in addition to Chism’s not guilty plea on the murder charge, a clerk entered automatic not guilty pleas to the rape and robbery counts.

Chism is charged with attacking and robbing Ritzer in a second-floor bathroom at Danvers High on the afternoon of Oct. 22, then wheeling her in a recycling bin to a wooded area nearby, where he raped her and left her partly naked under a pile of leaves and debris, according to court papers. Police found a note next to her body that read, “I hate you all.”

Those details emerged from court documents released last month. Because there was no issue of bail in the case (first-degree murder suspects are generally not presumed to be entitled to bail), prosecutors were not required to give any statement of facts.

Instead, much of yesterday’s hearing was given over to a procedural debate over the proper way to handle the two “youthful offender” indictments.

Youthful offender cases are typically handled in Juvenile Court. But Judge Howard Whitehead was designated by court administrators to handle all three charges yesterday, acting temporarily as a juvenile court judge.

While state law requires that a defendant who is 14 or older be tried for murder in the Superior Court, the statute does not address the lesser charges.

MacDougall argued that the three charges should be tried together, as the robbery and rape were “part and parcel” of the slaying.

MacDougall said she plans to file a motion to “join” the charges in Superior Court and try them before a jury together.

But Chism’s attorney, Denise Regan, said she will object to that. “They’re youthful offender indictments, and he’s 14 years old, and he’s entitled to all of the rights and benefits that go to a juvenile,” Regan argued.

Whitehead suggested that he may ask the state Appeals Court to issue an opinion on the issue.

The courtroom was packed for the proceeding.

In one back corner of the courtroom sat members of Chism’s family.

Family and friends of Ritzer filled two rows in the front of the courtroom gallery. Law enforcement officers were also seated around the courtroom and in the jury box.

Initially, the seat between defense lawyers Regan and Susan Oker was empty, while Chism waited in a holding cell next to the courtroom.

Regan, who had filed a motion seeking to move the arraignment on the rape and robbery counts back to Juvenile Court, asked Whitehead to address him at sidebar, which ended with the judge telling court officers, “Bring him out.”

Chism was dressed in a pullover sweater, shirt and tie with khaki pants, a contrast to the white plastic coverall he wore at his District Court arraignment in October, after police had taken his clothing as evidence in the case.

Neither family commented to reporters as they left.

A status hearing is scheduled for Jan. 30.