DANVERS — Lawyers for Philip Chism, the former Danvers teenager convicted in 2015 of raping and killing teacher Colleen Ritzer, argue that jurors should have been allowed to consider the effects of adolescent brain development in deciding the case.
The arguments are part of a sweeping 163-page brief filed late last month in Chism’s appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, along with hundreds more pages of transcripts, earlier court rulings and other information, some of it ordered sealed by the court.
The appellate lawyers also take issue with a range of other aspects of the case, from steps they contend should have been taken during the investigation to rulings on the admissibility of evidence prior to trial, to Chism’s sentencing.
Chism, now 24, is serving a sentence of 40 years to life at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, for the rape, robbery and murder of Ritzer, of Andover. Ritzer, a math teacher, was 24 and in her second year of teaching, when she was killed in a bathroom at Danvers High School on Oct. 22, 2013.
Chism was a 14-year-old freshman in Ritzer’s math class at the time.
Lawyers Michael Schneider and Benjamin Brooks want the state’s high court to further expand the use of newly-developed theories of adolescent brain development, by requiring judges, if asked, to let jurors consider those theories when deciding if a teenage defendant was suffering from a mental disease or defect.
By barring that option, the lawyers argue, jurors were not able to properly evaluate Chism’s insanity defense, which, they argue, violated his rights to due process and prejudiced the jury against him.
“The scientific evidence is increasingly clear that the bathing of the adolescent brain in endogenous hormones and the pruning of gray matter — no less than consuming exogenous chemicals such as drugs or alcohol — can ‘interact with’ and ‘intensify’ an adolescent’s mental disease or defects so as to diminish his capacity ‘to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law,” the lawyers wrote in the brief. “Such an instruction was particularly necessary here given the acknowledged difficulty in determining whether Philip, who was only 14 years 9 months at the time of the offense, was suffering from a diagnosable mental disease or defect.”
Lawyers: defense hindered by rulings
The lawyers, who refer to Chism by his first name throughout the brief, also say the trial judge erred repeatedly throughout the case, including barring the testimony of two defense experts who reviewed MRI scans of Chism’s brain, then sought to compare them to a sample from a study of slightly older teens they were conducting in Pennsylvania.
The lawyers are also challenging a ruling that limited the scope of testimony from the defense expert, Dr. Richard Dudley, who had testified that Chism suffered from an unspecified psychotic disorder that included auditory hallucinations and commands. Dudley was not allowed to testify about statements Chism made in which he said he believed he was an “anime” or “manga” character.
They also argue the judge’s rulings unfairly prohibited Chism’s lawyers at trial from “rehabilitating” Dudley — after he was questioned by a prosecutor about other high-profile defendants he’d testified on behalf of during his career, including the Long Island Railroad shootings — by letting him also testify about his work with victims at The Hague.
The lawyers also say it was not fair to allow the prosecution’s expert, Dr. Robert Kinscherff, to testify at trial as to his opinion because it was based in part on having viewed a video of Danvers and state police questioning Chism following his arrest, a video that was suppressed by the judge prior to trial.
Alternative views of evidence
Turning to the evidence in the case, neither Chism’s trial lawyers nor his appellate lawyers are contesting that he killed Ritzer, only his culpability. However, they are challenging his conviction on rape and robbery charges. In the brief to the SJC, Brooks and Schneider suggest investigators failed to rule out another source for Chism’s DNA being found in Ritzer, arguing it is “equally if not more likely” that he “deposited” his bodily fluids on Ritzer after she was dead. Rape requires that a victim be alive.
And they dispute a characterization of Chism having carried Ritzer’s underwear out of the bathroom, the basis of the robbery conviction. Robbery also requires that a victim be alive. The lawyers suggest it was taken after Ritzer died. The underwear was later found in a backpack Chism was carrying when found by police after he was stopped. The lawyers also argue that police had no justification to search the backpack.
The lawyers also argue the trial should have been moved to an area where there was less public awareness of or media coverage of the case, and that the jury pool should have been dismissed and replaced when news reports appeared about Chism being hospitalized for an evaluation during jury selection in 2015. They also argue the jury pool in Eastern Massachusetts was also exposed to coverage of a similar but non-fatal case involving a DYS worker at the facility where Chism was awaiting trial in 2014. (That case is still pending, according to the Suffolk District Attorney’s office).
Fairness of sentence
Chism’s lawyers also argue that Judge David Lowy’s sentence unfairly extended the period of time before Chism could seek parole. Murder in Massachusetts ordinarily requires a sentence of life without parole, but because Chism was under 18 at the time of the crime, Lowy was required to impose a sentence that would give Chism the opportunity to seek parole someday. But, the appeals lawyers argue, by imposing a 40-year term on the rape and robbery counts, they say the sentence was disproportionate and unfair.
Lowy is now a justice on the SJC. Justices whose prior cases in the trial court are under appeal do not take part in SJC hearings or decisions on those cases, however.
All first-degree murder convictions in Massachusetts are appealed.
The unusually lengthy brief in the case required the attorneys to seek permission from the SJC before it was filed. Chism’s lawyers also did not file the appeal formally until 2021, in part due to the time it took to obtain and then review transcripts of the pretrial motions, trial, and sentencing.
The SJC has given the Essex District Attorney’s office until the end of May to file its brief in the case. Once that is submitted, the Chism team could then seek to respond to that brief.
After all of the briefs are filed, the case will be scheduled for argument before the court.