DANVERS — Hours before a day-long sentencing hearing is set to get underway for Philip Chism, his attorneys tried but failed to bar victim Colleen Ritzer’s best friend, aunt and other friends and relatives from giving victim-impact statements in court.
Prosecutors want Chism, now 17, to spend at least 50 years in prison for Ritzer’s rape, robbery and murder before he is eligible to seek parole.
His attorneys want Salem Superior Court Judge David Lowy to impose a sentence that would let Chism seek parole by the age of 40.
The issue is a new one, thanks to a landmark Supreme Judicial Court ruling handed down just two months after Ritzer’s murder, which held that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder cannot receive the usual mandatory life sentence without parole.
A law enacted in response to that decision, which sets a minimum of 25 years, does not apply to Chism because his crimes occurred before that law was written.
Lowy said Thursday he hopes to complete the sentencing of Chism on Friday but may need additional time after hearing from both sides. He told the prosecution and defense he would like to issue a written sentencing decision, which may take until Monday.
With sentencing set to get underway at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Chism’s defense team filed a sheath of motions Thursday morning seeking, among other things, to limit the number of speakers during the hearing.
Nine speakers expected
Denise Regan, who represents the convicted killer, took exception to a list of expected speakers that include Ritzer’s aunt, her best friend, a teacher, a cousin and her colleague Sarah Giaquinta, who testified during the trial.
But after a last-minute hearing Thursday afternoon, Lowy said, “I’m not going to limit the allocutions.”
Nor will Lowy limit the amount of time each speaker can have to address the court.
Carrie Kimball Monahan, a spokeswoman for the Essex District Attorney’s office, said she anticipates nine victim impact statements from Ritzer’s parents and other family and friends of the slain teacher.
Ritzer was 24 and a math teacher at Danvers High School where the then-14-year-old Chism was a freshman in her class.
On the afternoon of Oct. 22, 2013, a jury concluded last fall, Chism waited after school, then, armed with a box cutter and wearing a hooded sweatshirt and gloves, followed the Andover woman into a second-floor bathroom down the hall from her classroom.
Chism attacked and raped Ritzer in the bathroom, then wheeled her out of the school in a recycling bin. Her body was found in a wooded area behind the school.
Prosecutors had also charged Chism with raping Ritzer a second time in the woods, but because they could not conclusively prove she was still alive at the time, Chism was acquitted of the second rape count.
Still, each of the charges for which Chism was convicted in December carry a potential life sentence.
Public safety concerns
Prosecutors, in a sentencing memorandum filed Thursday morning, asked Lowy to impose consecutive life sentences for the murder and rape charges, with parole eligibility after 25 years on each charge. They’re seeking a third, concurrent term of 25 years to life on the robbery charge.
The district attorney’s office expressed “grave concerns about public safety” in the 35-page memorandum.
Chism’s attorneys, meanwhile, are opposed to any sentence that would run consecutively, arguing it’s not allowed by law and runs afoul of the separation of powers set up by the Constitution.
They are seeking parole eligibility for Chism after serving 15 years of a life sentence for the murder conviction, or, in the alternative, concurrent sentences of three life terms with parole eligibility after 26 years (or when Chism turns 40).
“This consecutive sentence idea, there’s so much wrong with it,” argued Chism attorney John Osler during Thursday’s hearing.
Prosecutor Kate MacDougall suggested that by Osler’s reasoning, no one could ever be sentenced to consecutive terms for any crime.
The defense has pushed hard for their client to be treated as a juvenile to the extent possible, referring to him by that term throughout the proceedings.
“As grave and unthinkable as Philip Chism’s acts were,” wrote Regan, “in the sentencing context they must be viewed through the lens of adolescent development.”
Prosecutors, however, say Chism, in contrast to a teenager acting impulsively, was “purposefully cruel” and the evidence showed that he planned the crime.
“Apart from his chronological age at the time of the offense, the case is devoid of any sign that rehabilitation is likely,” prosecutors MacDougall and David O’Sullivan wrote, “or that the defendant at some point in the near future no longer poses a threat to the public.”
“Rather than attempting to immediately forget the horror of his crimes against Ritzer, the defendant kept souvenirs to memorialize and recount them,” prosecutors said.
And seven months later, he allegedly committed a similar attack on another young woman, they noted.
Two months ago, Chism’s lawyers also petitioned the court to bar observers, prosecutors and law enforcement from wearing pink clothing items during the sentencing hearing.
Lowy ordered law enforcement and the prosecution team not to wear pink, but did not create such a restriction for the Ritzer family, friends or colleagues who will attend the hearing.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.