SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 31, 2014

Delay in Chism trial?

Uncertainty over sentencing could involve Appeals Court

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — The recent ruling that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder are now eligible to seek parole after 15 years could affect the trial and sentencing of Danvers teen Philip Chism, potentially delaying the trial for more than a year, a judge suggested yesterday.

During a hearing where Chism, 15, was arraigned on a new count of aggravated rape yesterday, Salem Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead again raised the issue of how this and two other “youthful offender” indictments will be handled.

Chism, dressed in the same sweater and tie he wore last fall during his initial arraignment, said nothing during yesterday’s brief hearing.

Through his attorneys he waived the reading of the charge. A plea of not guilty was entered to the new count of aggravated rape.

Chism sat between his attorneys, Denise Regan and Susan Oker, who referred to him as “the juvenile” throughout the proceeding.

Chism, who is charged in the Oct. 22 slaying of Danvers High teacher Colleen Ritzer, 24, of Andover, is asking through his lawyers for the murder charge to be tried separately from the other charges. Prosecutors want to join the cases together and try all of them in Superior Court.

In the past, prosecutor Kate MacDougall acknowledged, the outcome of the lesser charges would have been secondary to the murder charge, which carried an automatic sentence of life without parole.

But since the Christmas Eve ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court finding that juveniles are entitled to parole eligibility after 15 years, the sentences imposed on other counts could impact how long someone serves. And sentences for adult offenders are longer than those imposed on juveniles.

Whitehead said he’s found no legal guidance for how the offenses should be handled.

“The youthful offender indictments are probably contemplated to be treated, as the murder indictment, as an adult offense,” he said, “but I can see the argument the other way.”

Since there is no precedent on the issue, he said he is considering asking the Appeals Court to issue an opinion. He acknowledged that it’s possible that an answer could take up to a year, delaying the trial in the case.

Both prosecutors and Chism’s lawyers had some reservations about that.

The prosecutor, in particular, was concerned about the possible delay and urged the judge to consider moving the case forward. She asked for time to consult with other attorneys in her office but acknowledged that “given the state of the law prior to now, there wasn’t much purpose indicting on a youthful offender charge,” because it wouldn’t affect a sentence of life without parole.

Similarly, Chism’s lawyers were also concerned about delaying the case. But they believe Chism is entitled to separate proceedings.

Also during the hearing, MacDougall told the judge she has turned over most of the evidence available in the case so far, including a copy of a hard drive containing all of the surveillance video from the school. A notice filed in court yesterday indicates that the autopsy report has been completed and turned over.

Not complete is a forensic examination of Chism’s cellphone, which is being looked at for possible evidence, including any photos that might have been taken during the crime.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for April 7.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.