DANVERS — New details of what Philip Chism allegedly told investigators about the death of his teacher, Colleen Ritzer, emerged Friday during the second day of a hearing into whether a jury will ever get to hear what he had to say.
Chism, then 14, told a state police detective that there was “some trigger word that got him angry,” Lt. Norman Zuk testified about the interview he and other officers had with Chism in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2013. Chism wouldn’t say what that word was, Zuk said.
But Chism went on to offer a confession, albeit one prosecutors say minimized what he did to Ritzer, 24, his math teacher at Danvers High School.
“He had given her what he described as some sort of karate chop,” Zuk said Chism told the investigators.
Later, Danvers police detective Sgt. Philip Tansey, who had questioned the teen alongside Zuk, filled in more details. Chism told the investigators that the karate chop knocked her out. He said he put his hand over her mouth and “dragged” the box cutter across her throat. The first time did not break the skin, he said. A second wound across the neck killed her, Chism told the investigators.
As Tansey testified, Ritzer’s mother was nearly doubled over, weeping.
During the interview, Tansey said Chism was given a piece of paper with a drawing of what looked like a head and neck, and was asked to show officers where on Ritzer’s body the injuries were. Chism drew two lines on the neck.
Prosecutor Kate MacDougall submitted that drawing to the judge.
He also drew two maps, one showing where investigators could find Ritzer’s body and another where they could find her phone, discarded in a lot behind the Hollywood Hits movie theater.
Denied sexual assault
Investigators asked Chism if he had sexually assaulted Ritzer.
“He said no, it wasn’t anything sexual,” said Tansey.
That statement belies evidence that prosecutors say shows Chism raped Ritzer twice during the attack, which started in a second-floor bathroom at the high school on the afternoon of Oct. 22, 2013.
MacDougall submitted a copy of a video recording of the interrogation, but it was not played in court, and Chism’s lawyers are asking that the video, as well as a transcript, be sealed from public view.
In addition to the box cutter, investigators said they found a “diving knife” in Chism’s backpack. Near the spot where Ritzer’s body was found, investigators found bloody clothing, including a pair of jeans, hanging from branches. There were also shoes on the ground.
It was not clear whose clothing it was.
Chism’s lawyer, Denise Regan, a public defender, tried to call into question the timeline that police are giving for the discovery of Ritzer’s body, in an attempt to show that they knew, or should have known, that she was dead when they began questioning him.
But Zuk and Tansey have testified that they still had hopes of finding Ritzer alive. Tansey even called in the Danvers fire department, which has a thermal imaging camera, to help in the search.
Zuk and Tansey were witnesses for the prosecution Friday. In between their testimony, Regan was allowed to call her own witness, forensic psychologist Thomas Grisso, a retired professor at UMass Medical Center who testified as an expert on teen decision-making.
Grisso cited studies that show teens are more susceptible to suggestion, and compared a teenager’s brain to a car in which “the gas pedal is down and the brakes aren’t working very well.”
Teens decisions are made on the basis of “what will that get me now,” rather than a long-term view, he said.
Judge David Lowy questioned, however, whether that also means that teens are less capable of understanding what police are telling them when they read them their rights.
‘I want to escape’
The judge also heard the second of two recorded police interviews with Diana Chism, the defendant’s mother. On that recording, a reference was made to Diana Chism collapsing in the police station and being offered an ambulance.
During that second interview, she again expressed concern that her son be given an attorney. But an investigator told her that Chism had already indicated to them that he didn’t want anyone’s help, only that “I want to escape,” and that the place he wanted to escape to was a juvenile jail.
The hearing is expected to continue for at least two more days, on Jan. 29 and 30.
The lawyers, as well as attorneys for The Salem News, the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and the Boston Globe will be back in court Tuesday afternoon for a ruling by Lowy on whether to impound the interrogation video and transcript, as requested by the defense.
Lowy indicated Friday that he’s leaning toward releasing at least a transcript of the interrogation, agreeing with Salem News attorney Peter Caruso that it is necessary to help the public understand his ruling on the motion to suppress evidence, whatever that may turn out to be.
Lawyers for Chism have argued against releasing the materials, which he described as “inflammatory,” saying it would prevent Chism from finding an impartial jury to hear the case.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.