Even If Convicted, Teen Accused of Brutally Murdering His Teacher Could Be Freed
The trial for a Massachusetts teen accused of brutally raping and murdering his ninth-grade math teacher more than two years ago is about to finally get underway, with opening statements expected to start by November 16 or earlier.
Philip Chism was only 14 when he was charged in 2013 with the aggravated rape, murder and armed robbery of Colleen Ritzer, his 24-year-old teacher who authorities say had asked him to stay after class to talk when she found he was drawing instead of taking notes.
She was discovered by police with her throat slit in the wooded area outside the Danvers school. She had been sexually assaulted and a note was found near her half-naked body that read, “I hate you all.”
Chism has pleaded not guilty and is being tried as an adult.
His attorney Denise Regan, who declined to comment on this story, is reportedly believed to be considering a mental health defense.
But if a jury finds Chism guilty, he could one day be a free man under recently revised law that prevents sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“This is one of the first cases involving a juvenile, who is somebody between 14 and 18, charged with first degree murder since the Massachusetts legislation revised the murder statute following the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama… the new first degree murder statute, as it applies to juveniles, limits the punishment to a period of 20 to 30 years,” New England Law Professor David Siegel told INSIDE EDITION.
In 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that automatically sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
If he were to be found guilty and sentenced today, Chism could walk free under the new statute between the ages of 36 and 46.
“Juveniles are different. Their brains develop over a much longer period than people had thought… that recognition (by the Court) was long overdue,” said Siegel, who has written on the sentencing of juveniles. “Clinicians and psychiatrists and psychologists had been writing about it and recognizing it in research for well over three decades.”
The Sentencing Project estimates there are approximately 2,500 individuals serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, all of whom were convicted of homicide.
The 2012 ruling has made it possible for many who once thought they would never see the light of day to try for re-sentencing hearings, much to the horror of their victims' families whose closure was torn away by their love one's killer's second chance.
That includes Florida man Joshua Phillips, who in 1998 was convicted of murder. He was 14 at the time.
From L to R: Prison Photo of Joshua Philips; A memorial photo of Maddie Clifton (Facebook)
Maddie Clifton was eight years old when Phillips stabbed her and clubbed her to death in his San Jose area home, police said. Phillips participated in the search for the little girl, whose body was hidden underneath his bed. His mother discovered her body a week after he had killed her.
Now 31, Phillips will go before a judge in January to be given a sentencing date. It’s something that his victim’s sister, Jessie Clifton, is dreading.
“I think it’s just very unfair,” Clifton, 28, told IE. She was 11 when her sister was murdered.
“I’m scared for myself. I’m scared for my family. She doesn’t get to walk on the face of this earth again; why should he?”
Having worked as a paralegal in the States Attorney’s office, Clifton said she believes she knows firsthand that Phillips is not in a position to be released.
“Everyone is different and everyone deals with prison differently… but they’re all going to say ‘I’m a changed person, I’m a model prisoner.’ To put someone through what we went through? No,” she said. “I think it’s really dumb to backtrack.”
For the family of Colleen Ritzer, the agony is not a thing of the past.
In a video released shortly after her death, Ritzer's mother, Peggy said: "These past six months have been a period of great pain and sorrow for our family and all those who knew and loved Colleen.
"Each day presents new challenges but we are blessed by the support of family and friends. Through the many acts of genuine kindness to honor our daughter and sister, our spirits are lifted. Though difficult, we strive to follow Colleen's words to find good in every day," Peggy Ritzer added.
Peggy Ritzer was joined by Colleen's father, brother and sister, who thanked those near and far for their support.
"In honor of that passion and to create a lasting legacy, Colleen’s family established the Colleen E. Ritzer Memorial Scholarship to benefit Andover and Danvers High School seniors who demonstrate a passion for teaching, academic excellence and love of family," the scholarship's site reads.
The desire to forever remember the beloved educator— who described herself on social media as a "math teacher often too excited about the topics I'm teaching"— is an understandable and familiar one for the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, an organization that serves as "Advocacy and Community for the families of those murdered by juveniles."
"We are heartbroken. People we love were murdered. And they were murdered by someone who is getting tons of attention and sympathy for his crime, while our loved ones, and we who survive, are ignored," the Organization's site reads.
Their advocacy extends to legal finality in cases decided long ago.
“For victims’ families, the ‘retroactive’ application of the Miller Supreme Court ruling means only one thing – more torture and endless agony for our brutalized families,” the organization writes.
Still, many say it’s a slippery slope to condemn a person for crimes they have yet to commit.
“It’s hard to predict future violence in anybody,” Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist and professor at Temple University, told IE.
“Statistically speaking, 90 percent of violent juvenile offenders do not become adult criminals,” he continued, saying that when someone goes before a parole board, a wide variety of factors are considered.
“The circumstances of the original crime, their behavior (in prison)… signs of rehabilitation,” Steinberg said, noting a parole board conducts an “assessment of risk he possesses” to a community.
That assessment of risk was the driving factor for law enforcement officials in keeping one juvenile killer behind bars well before the law permitted it.
Craig Price was 13 when in 1987 he broke into the Rhode Island home of 27-year-old Rebecca Spencer and stabbed the mother of two 58 times.
Two years later, he murdered Joan Heaton, 39, with kitchen knives she bought earlier that day as well as her daughters Melissa, eight, and Jennifer, 10, who had been stabbed 62 times.
From L to R: Rebecca Spencer with her son, Steven; Joan Heaton and her daughters Jennifer and Melissa (teenkillers.org)
“Craig Price was the original, the first juvenile serial killer in America,” said Det. Kenny Anderson, who arrested the then 15-year-old. He retired in 1994.
“That was part of our problem when we investigated this. ‘Oh well, that’s a kid.’ This was a nasty murder. You didn’t want to accuse a teenager of this,” Anderson told IE.
“He had no problem talking about it,” Anderson said. “You’d have to see it to believe it. He brutally, brutally murdered that family. When we were interviewing him for the murder we asked ‘why (stab them) so many times?’ He actually said – and this was no big deal to him – ‘they kept gurgling and I thought she was alive so I had to finish it.’”
Prosecutors said that Chism also spoke of his alleged crime.
Prosecutor Kate MacDougall said during closing arguments on a motion to suppress statements and other evidence in the case early this year that Chism "leaves out important details. He disparages the victim and claims she did something to bring about her own death in a bizarre way.
“He clarifies things,” MacDougall said, describing a recorded interview Chism allegedly had with police. “He’s careful as to his description of the murder, which bears no resemblance to reality, that minimized how many times he stabs her, that minimizes the nature of the sexual assault.”
According to court documents, Chism allegedly told police: "After she insulted me, that's when I became the teacher."
"The indictments ... detail horrific and unspeakable acts," District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said in a statement.
Colleen Ritzer's family released a statement at the time, saying: "We are devastated and heartbroken by the details of the horrific circumstances surrounding the death of our beautiful daughter and sister, Colleen."
The details Price recounted of his crimes and his demeanor while he relayed what he did have stuck with Anderson, now 70.
"You know the term stone-cold killer? That's the term you could use for him. Stone cold. It was incredible," Anderson said.
By law at the time, Price was to be freed when he turned 21, but those involved in putting the teen behind bars made it their mission to keep him locked up.
“That changed history in Rhode Island, everywhere,” Anderson said.
Craig Price (Prison Photo)
They succeeded, and Price, now 42, is still in prison serving time for a series of offenses he committed while locked up. He was denied parole earlier this year and will serve the rest of his current sentence, which expires July 2018 with good time. He then will serve another two years, six months and 23 days for assault and battery in the stabbing of a correctional officer.
“The reason he’s doing all this time is because he’s violent within the system,” Anderson said. “He acts within the system. He assaults guards, he assaults other prisoners. Every time he does that, they charge him and not to say I hope someone gets hurt, but I hope he keeps doing that. If he gets out… that’s a scary thought. You know he’s going to get in trouble.”
It’s an uncommon case like that that is the exception and should not be looked at as the norm, Steinberg notes.
“Fifty-year-old guys don’t commit a lot of crimes, particularly if he had behaved in prison,” Steinberg said, speaking generally.
He noted that while “it is very, very, very rare for somebody who’s committed murder to be paroled,” the Supreme Court’s decision is a good one.
Martin Horn, the former NYC Commissioner of Corrections, said the issue is a complicated and challenging one for society.
“Simply locking (someone) up and not doing anything for him or to him or with him is not likely to produce a good outcome,” Horn said. “Time alone would not cure what ails him. Imprisonment by itself cannot be the answer. Society has to take some responsibility… that he comes back to us (as) a productive member of the community.”
The issue is cut and dry for others.
“If a person’s violent, it doesn’t matter what your age is; you do not belong in society,” Anderson continued. “I’ve dealt with people who’ve killed people and they’re very remorseful afterward. When you kill someone (when you’re) unprovoked, you’re never going to feel any differently.
"I know these cases," he said. "If you're violent enough to kill people, and in some cases hide the body under a bed, in the woods, mutilate them, something is wrong with this picture. They don’t belong in society.”
Only a final selection of jurors stands in the way of the start of Chism's trial. Judge David A. Lowy reportedly wants a total of 18 jurors to hear evidence in the trial, but 12 jurors will ultimately decide Chism's fate.
For many, that's when the hard part will begin.