Philip Chism was 14 years old when he allegedly raped and murdered his math teacher, dumped her body in the woods, and then caught a matinee showing of the Woody Allen movie Blue Jasmine. Students at Danvers High School in Massachusetts say the teacher, 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer, had asked Chism to stay after school; she apparently wanted to help him prepare for an upcoming test.
Attorneys are expected to present opening arguments in Chism's trial on Monday, where he faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated rape, and armed robbery. Now 16, Chism has only two cards to play in hopes of escaping a lifetime behind bars: an insanity defense, and his age.
Chism's mental health has already come up during the jury selection process. He was reportedly banging his head on the floor of his cell, and claimed to hear a voice insisting he not trust his legal team. Judging from questions asked by the defense during jury selection, they are expected to argue the teenager cannot be found culpable for his crimes due to his state of mind at the time of the killing.
Prosecutors claim Chism's pre-trial stunts were "manipulative," an act to win over expert witnesses. But even if he has legitimate mental health issues, it may not be enough to convince a jury he's not guilty by reason of insanity. As veteran Boston defense attorney Robert Sheketoff explains, "The chance of winning an insanity defense is pretty much zilch."
Still, Chism may still fare better than alleged teen murderers in Massachusetts's recent past.
In the 2012 United States Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama, justices found that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder is excessive and violates the Eighth Amendment. Many of the 29 states that still gave out such punishments to juveniles convicted of first–degree murder soon adapted to the federal law.
Up until that point, Massachusetts had been handing out life without parole sentences to young killers. The harsh law was put into place in 1996 after Eddie O'Brien, the 15-year old grandson of a Somerville police chief, stabbed his best friend's mom to death. Before that, most juveniles in the state were released after their 21st birthday.
While Massachusetts has not reverted back to the juvenile sentencing laws of the early 90s, last year the state passed a law that gives juveniles convicted of first-degree murder an opportunity for parole after 20–30 years.
The laws surrounding insanity, culpability, and guilt have seen less change.
The evidence against Chism is stacked. He was detained carrying a bloody box cutter, a pair of woman's underwear, and Ritzer's credit cards. A surveillance video shows him following Ritzer into the bathroom where she was killed wearing a hoodie and gloves, then walking out alone.
Since his murder arrest, Chism also allegedly attacked a clinician at a state juvenile facility. In an eerie echo of the Ritzer murder, he allegedly followed her into a bathroom, strangled her, and stabbed her with a pencil until she was able to scream for help. Department of Youth Services (DYS) officials say when they finally detained Chism, he was psychotic and "screaming incoherently [and] foaming at the mouth," according to the Boston Globe. Chism is facing charges for the alleged attack in juvenile court at a later date.
Though cases where defense attorneys use the insanity defense are often highly publicized due to their horrific nature—as in the case of Colorado shooter James Homes—it is usually a tactic of last resort. As in the Holmes case, even if the defendant has a documented history of mental health issues, jurors rarely if ever agree to send murderers to a mental health facility, where they could potentially be released back into the public.
This is frustrating for Boston-based defense attorney Jeffrey Denner. His client Edwin Alemany was convicted of murdering 24-year-old Amy Lord when the jury rejected his insanity defense earlier this year. A psychologist who testified in the trial revealed Alemany was raped as a child, and he spent his teenage years in and out of mental hospitals under the protection of the DYS. But by the time he was 18, the services Alemany got from DYS were cut, and he no longer sought treatment for his hallucinations and severe depression.
The prosecution argued that Alemany's crime—kidnapping Lord and forcing her to withdraw $1,000 from an ATM—was strategically carried out, and could not have been actions of someone who was too insane to understand the impact of the crime.
Alemany is currently appealing the verdict. But for Denner, the conviction revealed the failures of the American judicial system to protect the mentally ill. "It underscored for me the whole notion that the system often lets people down," said Denner, who is worried his client won't get the mental health services he needs behind bars.
"People are so afraid because they can be let out right away," says Denner. "They could be back out killing your neighbors or your kids in six months and people just aren't willing to do that."
The solution, according to Denner, is to introduce a law allowing for a verdict of guilty-but-insane. Six states already have some variation of this law, where the defendant receives hospitalization instead of prison time. That way, Denner argues, jurors won't have to worry that the defendant might hurt others.
Still, some defense lawyers maintain that guilty-but-insane convictions are unfair punishments to those who truly did not understand their actions at the time of the crime. "If someone truly is insane, they should not be convicted of a crime while they are insane," says Boston-based defense attorney Martin Weinberg.
Unlike Alemany, so far no evidence that Chism received mental health treatment before the murder has come to light. Instead, students say he was a well-adjusted junior varsity soccer player who had recently moved to the area from Tennessee.
Yet despite the horrific nature of the crime, Chism's attorneys may have more tools than most to convince the jury he was insane at the time of the murders. His statements to police are not admissible, but it's possible defense attorneys will argue that events leading up to the attack left the teenager too deranged to think clearly. After all, Chism allegedly mentioned to cops that Ritzer had used a "trigger" word.
What that word was—some reports suggest it was the name of his old home, "Tennessee"—and what could have happened there that might have led Chism to inflict such horrific violence on his math teacher remains unknown.
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