To the editor:
The case of the Oct. 22 brutal rape, robbery and murder of 24-year-old math teacher Colleen Ritzer of Danvers allegedly by 14-year-old Philip Chism has entered an uncertain phase. This is because Salem Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead has raised concerns that applying the “youthful offender” standard to issued indictments may not be appropriate in light of the Christmas Eve ruling by the SJC granting parole eligibility to juvenile offenders after 15 years.
There are two levels of indictments pending. The murder indictment is being treated as an adult offense. Separately, defense attorneys are attempting to have the lesser charges of robbery and the latest one, aggravated rape, as youthful offender charges. Prior to the SJC ruling, lesser charges would not impact the length of potential incarceration if a higher charge took precedent. So for example, if the charges against Chism led to comprehensive convictions, life without parole would take the precedent, as it is weighed against the higher charge and the lower charges would not impact his sentence of life without parole potentially.
But with the SJC ruling, separating the trials between the two types of charges could potentially dilute the sentence on the adult offense, thereby positioning a possible conviction of Chism to be eligible for parole in his early 30s. Susan Oker, one of Chism’s two defense attorneys, must be brandishing this thought as she has repeatedly referred to her client as “the juvenile.” They believe their client is entitled to separate proceedings.
Naturally, the prosecutors are urging the judge to defer sending this case for an opinion to the Appeals Court. The initial result will be a potential delay of the case for one year and secondarily it may risk the outcome of delivering an appropriate sentence. The prosecutors are attempting to join the cases and pursue an aggressive case. They are hoping to center their case on all charges on recently completed evidence that includes a hard drive of the school’s surveillance tape, a recently completed autopsy report of the victim and soon to be completed forensic examination of Chism’s cellphone.
Though Chism is deserving of his day in court and a vigorous defense under the law, the family of the victim deserve to be on an eventual road to closure.
The delaying actions contemplated by Superior Court Judge Whitehead is an unnecessary disruption in the course of justice and the fault lies in the misguided ruling of the SJC.