A teenage boy in Massachusetts was suffering from undiagnosed psychosis when he raped his high school math teacher and fatally stabbed her, his lawyers told jurors Monday on the first day of his murder trial.
Philip Chism, now 16, is being tried as an adult in Salem Superior Court where he is facing murder charges over the Oct. 22, 2013 death of Colleen Ritzer in Danvers when he was just 14.
“It’s going to be really hard to listen to this,’’ Chism's attorney Denise Regan told jurors. “It’s going to be challenging and heartbreaking. But the real work of this is to figure out the terrible landscape of a young boy’s mind in the months and days and weeks before this terrible event.’’
Chism assaulted 24-year-old Ritzer in the school bathroom where he slashed her legs, slit her throat with a box cutter and raped her, said Essex Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall. He then took her body into nearby woods and violated her corpse with a tree branch, before leaving a note on her body that read “I hate you all.”
Police found Chism after midnight wandering a desolate farmland highway walking aimlessly north after his mother reported him missing.
Officers described him as “strange” and said he didn’t make eye contact. An officer asked Chism if he had anything on him that could hurt them. He said yes and opened a wallet exposing the bloodied box cutter.
“Whose blood is this?” asked the officer.
“The girl’s,” he said.
“Where is the girl?”
“In the woods.”
“If we find her, can we help her?”
Acknowledging her client had done "unspeakable things,” Chism's attorney Denise Regan said he was suffering from undiagnosed psychosis at the time of the killings that caused him to hallucinate and left him depressed and anxious.
"Why did a 14-year-old boy, well behaved, quiet, one month into high school, do these terrible things?" said Regan. "The answer is he was severely mentally ill. He was suffering from psychotic disorder since age 10."
Chism told a psychiatrist hired by his attorney that voices had pushed him to kill the teacher, who was popular among students. He was treated for psychosis by Worcester Hospital and prescribed anti-psychotics after his detention, which was the first time he was ever treated for his illness, said Regan.
A psychiatric examination found him competent for trial on Nov. 4.
In court Monday, with Ritzer's mother sitting slumped in the front pew, Regan described the event as a psychotic episode.
His maternal grandmother and maternal aunt have also been diagnosed with psychosis and cycled in and out of hospitals for treatment several times, she said.
“He could maintain the fiction that everything was fine,” said Regan. “No one was asking what was going on inside of him."
In 2013, Chism's parents divorced and he moved with his mom from Tennessee to Danvers, Massachusetts, about 20 miles north of Boston. He continued soccer at Danvers High School, but students noticed he transformed from being friendly to quiet and isolated.
Just a day before the killing, a friend on the soccer team observed Chism staring off into space and said he wouldn’t respond to people who were talking with him. Team players said he was “emotionless” when he scored goal.
On the day of the killing, a friend became concerned and asked Chism what was wrong. The teenager didn’t respond and walked away.
In math class that afternoon, Chism was listening to music through earbuds and drawing instead of paying attention to Ritzer’s math lesson, said Regan. The teacher kept prodding him to pay attention, but he continued to listen to music, a coping mechanism for many people with psychosis, his attorney said.
Chism went to Ritzer’s classroom after school where she held a tutoring period for any students who wanted extra help. Ritzer, who was on a committee of teachers assigned to help freshmen adjust to high school, asked Chism friendly questions about Tennessee and how he was adjusting to Danvers. Chism became more and more tense, said Regan. At points, another student in the class noticed him looking out the window and mumbling as Ritzer talked.
When the tutoring period ended, Chism followed Ritzer into the women’s bathroom, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and mask, and holding the box cutter. He assaulted her for 11 minutes, slashing her body so deeply that he hit her vertebrae, said McDougall. He then discarded her body in the woods, she said.
Surveillance footage from the school shows Chism running in and out of school for about an hour and a half after killing Ritzer, said Regan. At points, the teenager can be seen barefoot and covered in blood.
The trial is expected to last through December.
Chism has also pleaded not guilty in Suffolk County to charges that he attacked and tried to kill a woman working at the Department of Youth Services facility in Boston, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.
He is expected to face trial for those charges after the murder case is resolved.
Leticia Miranda is a retail reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Leticia Miranda at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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