If you were around Danvers Wednesday morning, you knew there was something very wrong. Schools were closed and all that was said was that there was a murder investigation taking place.
It turned out that the investigation was into the murder of 24-year-old math teacher Colleen Ritzer (hereinafter, the “Deceased”). Her body was found just after midnight in the woods near Danvers High School. Inside the school, in a second-floor bathroom, blood was found.
Soon, 14-year-old freshman Philip Chism (hereinafter, the “Defendant”) would be charged with her murder.
Police awareness that there might be trouble with the Defendant had actually started on Tuesday. He had been reported missing. Teammates say that he is the leading scorer on the JV soccer team, but he failed to make the team practice on Tuesday at 4 p.m. or a regular team dinner at 6 p.m. that is held at a teammate’s home.
Authorities searching for the Defendant alerted the public Tuesday evening that the teen had been last seen around 6:30 p.m. By 11:20 that night, police also got word that the Deceased had also disappeared.
Around 12:30am, the Defendant was spotted walking alongside a busy road in Topsfield. Detectives are said to have “interviewed” him and he was shortly arrested. The police have indicated that it was a combination of the Defendant’s own statements and video surveillance that led to his arrest. They claim that he murdered the Deceased with a box cutter and dumped her body where it was found in the woods.
By Wednesday afternoon, the Defendant had been arraigned in Salem District Court and held without bail. He is charged as an adult, facing a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment without the chance of parole if convicted for the crime charged….Massachusetts Murder in the First Degree.
Attorney Sam’s Take On Juvenile Murder Investigations
First, let’s discuss the differences between a murder investigation when a juvenile is the suspect and when an adult is the suspect.
There are none.
Oh, there are a few more hoops that the police are expected to jump through when it comes to taking a statement like the one taken in this case. Other than that, a murder investigation is a murder investigation and you can be sure that the Commonwealth brings all it can to solve the case…and do so as quickly as possible. Especially when the homicide is sure to be a high profile one as this one was sure to be.
At this point, there is nothing indicating a motive and there has been very little evidence discussed in the media. We do know that there is apparently a video tape from surveillance cameras. We know that the Commonwealth indicates that said recording was part of the police decision to arrest the Defendant.
While we do know that the camera is being listed as evidence, we do not know what it actually shows. However, the Commonwealth indicates that the Deceased was killed inside the school, in a bathroom. One would imagine that there were no cameras in that bathroom. If the Commonwealth is correct, then it is unlikely that the actual killing of the Deceased appears on the video tape. At best, it would be the purported “dumping” of the body. Again, though, we do not know.
We do know that the police took a video statement of the Defendant. The circumstances of that interview, of course, we do not know…but should assume that the authorities did all that they could to make sure the results of that interview would not be suppressed. Yet, we cane expect that the interview, or interrogation, is likely to be challenged if defense counsel is knowledgeable. After all, what we are to expect is that the Defendant inculpated himself somehow. We do not know if his parents were present or even notified. We do know that the Defendant is 14 and was facing the onslaught of trained experience police professionals.
Although we cannot be sure, it seems like the Commonwealth will be relying heavily on that statement. If it should be suppressed, then there may no longer be a case against the Defendant for Murder in the First Degree.
The Defendant had best hope that he is able to procure the services of an experienced and talented criminal defense attorney. As I recently wrote in my chapter in a new book about handling gang-related crimes, as discussed in an earlier blog, there is a certain way defense counsel has to handle younger defendants. Trust is a key issue…even more so than with an adult client.
You may think that I am overly sympathetic to the Defendant and not sympathetic enough about the Deceased. By accounts she was a wonderful woman and teacher and, to be sure, her death is a tragedy however it happened. However, I have seen too many cases in which a rush to make an arrest traps someone who is not guilty of the crime. In a murder case, the stakes could not be higher.
I am also mindful of the fact that the Defendant, under our rule of law, is innocent until proven guilty.
Call me crazy, but I think that that has not been done yet. Further, I don’t think we honor the memory of the Deceased by convicting the wrong person.
To read the original stories upon this blog is based, please go http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/23/21093182-14-year-old-danvers-student-charged-with-teachers-murder-based-on-video-statement?lite and http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/24/justice/massachusetts-danvers-school-killing/