Why did Philip Chism kill Colleen Ritzer?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Good morning:

Why did Philip Chism kill Colleen Ritzer?

Many people are asking that question, including the police. Philip Chism knows the answer, but he has refused to disclose it.

Pursuant to the Fifth Amendment, he has a right to remain silent and cannot be compelled to reveal why he killed her. Therefore, we may never know why he killed her, unless he changes his mind.

This situation raises the following question: Must the prosecution prove motive in order to convict him of murder?

The answer is, “No.”

Recall that a crime consists of committing a prohibited act (actus reus) accompanied by a particular mental state (mens rea), such as premeditation, intent, knowledge, recklessness or criminal (i.e., gross) negligence.

The distinction between recklessness and criminal negligence is that the actor is reckless if he is aware that his conduct will create a substantial risk of causing serious harm or death to another person, yet he goes ahead and commits the act despite the risk; whereas, the actor is criminally negligent if he fails to be aware of that risk and his lack of awareness constitutes a gross deviation from the standard duty to act with due care to avoid injuring or killing other people.

We learned from the Zimmerman case, for example, that Florida defines second degree murder (FL Stat 782.04) as “the unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual.” As I noted in yesterday’s post, intent to kill is not an element of second degree murder. The actus reus is committing an unlawful act that causes the death of another person and the mens rea is “evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual.”

Relative to the issue of intent, notice that the prosecution must only prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to commit the act that caused serious injury or death, but it is not required to prove that the defendant intended to cause the harm that resulted from the act. This is the critical distinction that eluded the jury in the Zimmerman case.

Under Florida law, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the act that the defendant intended to commit, which in turn caused the victim’s death, was imminently dangerous to another person evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life. This is a recklessness standard and shooting someone in the chest at point blank range is such an act.

Notice that motive is not mentioned. This is not unusual. Should you desire to check all of the statutes in the United States defining murder, you will find that, with the notable exception of death penalty offenses, none of them require proof of motive. Death penalty offenses require proof of premeditated intent to kill, plus at least one aggravating factor, all of which are listed in the statutes that define the crime. Some motives are defined as aggravating factors. For example, premeditated intent to kill a witness or victim of a crime in order to prevent them from testifying at trial is defined as an aggravating factor in all death penalty statutes.

Massachusetts does not have a death penalty and motive is not an element of the crime of murder. Of course, motive will generally be a relevant consideration at sentencing and that is especially true in Chism’s case, even though the penalty for first-degree-murder is a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. He was 14-years-old when he committed the crime and in June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all statutes that require a juvenile to be sentenced to die in prison. Therefore, the court will have to impose a sentence that allows for the possibility of parole, a decision delegated to the parole board.

I suspect Chism’s sketchpad may contain important clues to his motive. He was drawing during class while Colleen Ritzer was explaining some mathematical concepts. Some students mentioned that she walked to his desk and commented about his drawing saying something like, “I didn’t know you could draw.” She then scheduled the appointment after school with him.

Why did Philip Chism kill Colleen Ritzer?

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26 Responses to Why did Philip Chism kill Colleen Ritzer?

  1. Mandy says:

    He had a psychotic break. The life-long physical, psychological and emotional abuse, plus the stressful divorce and ripping him away from the only people he had a connectedness to reached a point that caused the break. The psychological break could have lasted for days. This is why he is able to give details but not a motive. Because he doesn’t know. I’ve had such a break and it took very in depth counseling with hypnosis for me to go back to the time of the break and bring things together. I just was abscent “gone” during the entire period of the break. This is also why he is so cold. He is in emotional shock. And it’s also why he referred to his teacher as “the girl”. He should be tried as a juvenile and found innocent by reason of temporary insanity.

  2. crazy1946 says:

    I really don’t expect to get a reply to these questions, simply because it is such a hot potato issue in our present culture. What would, in your opinion, be the proper application of justice for this child, if he is guilty of the crime of murder? Can justice truly be found in a case like this, where the accused is a child and the victim an adult? Is our culture/society some how encouraging our children to act in violent ways, yet fail to accept our own responsibility when they commit violent acts? Do these questions deserve even a moment of thought? You decide….

    • You ask legitimate questions that deserve considerable thought and discussion. Unfortunately, most people want to demonize children who kill people. They refuse to consider the possibility that our children are reflections of ourselves and the culture that we live in. They won’t go there because they fear they cannot bear what they will find. It’s easier to blame the children and discard them than to look at themselves.

      I think it’s possible that we are living in the most selfish and greedy country in the world during the most selfish and greedy period in human history.

      I am appalled by what I see.

  3. crazy1946 says:

    Professor,

    “Insanity is a legal term, not a medical one. The definition requires a mental disease or defect that causes a person to be unable to distinguish right from wrong or conform their conduct to the requirements of law.”

    The only real problem in that statement as it applies to this case is that we seem to be utilizing adult standards to judge a child. Quite frankly, it is subjective to assume that this child, due to the probable onset of puberty, actually was aware of right or wrong at the time the crime was committed. I am not trying to justify his actions, nor condone murder committed by anyone at any age, but I would think that the age of the individual would have to be taken into consideration when determining his mental state. It is becoming all too popular in our present society to elevate mere children to adult status for the sake of criminal prosecution, yet we continue to deny that status in less convenient matters. At least one good thing about the prosecution of this child, it is not taking place in the state of Texas, where it would seem that anyone over the age of two is fair game for prosecution as an adult at the whim of the prosecutor… Will justice be served in this case? Will we not have to first determine what justice is and how best to apply it when dealing with a child in an adult justice system?

    • I understand and share your concern about doing justice, or what the ancient Egyptians called Ma’at.

      Children are not adults and should be handled differently.

      Nevertheless, I do not agree with this statement,

      Quite frankly, it is subjective to assume that this child, due to the probable onset of puberty, actually was aware of right or wrong at the time the crime was committed.

      I would be surprised to discover that he did not know it was wrong to slit his teacher’s throat.

  4. Two sides to a story says:

    The kid probably doesn’t even know why he did it. Moments like that border on insanity. He had to have been angry about something.

    • I disagree because I’m seeing some evidence of possible premeditation, such as the change of clothes and the box-cutter.

      • bettykath says:

        Utility knives aren’t strange objects in a school, especially art rooms and wood/metal shops. picking one up could have been on impulse just before he went into the bathroom, or he could have picked it up earlier in the day for completely other reasons. The clothes are something else. Could be premeditation. This is just so strange.

      • crazy1946 says:

        Professor, You aroused my curiosity with your theory of premeditation. However as bettykath has pointed out a box knife is a common object found in many class rooms. The clothes that he changed into very well could have been a spare set he kept in his locker for after a gym class or in the event of an accident. I called my neighbor last evening and she probably though I was insane when I asked her about her kids keeping a change of clothes at school, she did however assure me that they did and the reason I gave above is what she told me. So unless you have some additional information that has not been provided to us, I would think that it “probably” was not premeditated! Is there some reason that we must know the reason this child committed this murder? I can’t think of any reason other than to satisfy some need we have that would cause us to dwell on knowing the reason. Is there any reason that you could think of that would prevent his attorney from using mental issues as a defense? With all that has been said by the authorities up to this point, it should be obvious to most people that this child has some severe and horrible mental problem… or do we disregard this possibility and treat him as a quasi-adult for purposes of our version of justice?

        • You made a good point about the change of clothes and BK made a good point about the box cutter.

          If I were an investigator working the case, I would want to find out, if possible, where and when he obtained the clothes and the box cutter. For example, could he have returned home after the math class to obtain the change of clothes and the box cutter and still have had sufficient time to return to school for the appointment? Unless he got a ride, which is unlikely, he would have been on foot. So, we would have to figure out if he lived close enough to git ‘r done.

          Assuming sufficient time existed, can we determine if he left the school by checking video and/or interviewing students?

          The school kitchen, shop or art classes might have box cutters, so I would want to check that out too. That leads to the next question regarding inventory lists. After identifying all possible sources for box cutters, can we determine if any were missing, and if so, can we determine when they were taken?

          Assuming the box cutter that he used was recovered, can we identify where he might have obtained it? For example, it might be marked with the name of the school.

          Remember that premeditation does not require much time. It only requires sufficient time to (1) form intent to kill, reflect upon that decision, and (3) decide to go ahead and do it. If the prosecution can prove that he went out of his way to get something to commit the murder during the period of time between the class and the meeting after school, that would prove premeditation. That is, evidence that he obtained a weapon or change of clothes during that period of time would constitute powerful circumstantial evidence that he decided to kill her before the meeting after school.

        • gblock says:

          It seems to have become increasingly popular lately for younger and younger children to be treated as quasi-adult when they commit serious crimes. It’s really inappropriate and very disturbing.

          • crazy1946 says:

            gblock, I agree! It would seem that we as a society have reached the point that we no longer realize that children are “not” adults and do not act or respond as adults.

      • crazy1946 says:

        Professor, Please forgive my errors in punctuation an grammar in my last post… My eyes, and my fingers seem to not wish to follow instructions this morning.

        One more thing that would seem to rule out premeditation, that you might not have considered. It was said that the victim asked him to stay after school, so unless he devised a scheme to cause that, it would lead me to think that something that occurred in the meeting triggered some horrible mental deficiency to surface resulting in his taking the action he did. The real question that I would ask is, should this child be caged like an animal for his actions or should he receive help to allow him to deal with his problems in a mental facility. Regardless, it will probably be in the best interest of society that he is never allowed to be released.

      • Two sides to a story says:

        But that type of premeditation is a bit nuts too. My theory is that anyone who murders does so in at least a slight state of temporary insanity. Because it just ain’t normal to kill.

        • Insanity is a legal term, not a medical one. The definition requires a mental disease or defect that causes a person to be unable to distinguish right from wrong or conform their conduct to the requirements of law.

          It’s not unusual for a person experiencing a full blown psychotic delusion to still be able to distinguish between right and wrong and know, for example, that murder is wrong. Such a person would not be legally insane.

          The point is that our concept of insanity differs from the legal definition that almost no one can satisfy.

      • roderick2012 says:

        But how did he know in advance that she was going to catch him doodling during class AND punish him by keeping him after class?

        What disturbs me most is that he saw a movie after he killed her as if he had done nothing.

        Could he be a psychopath/sociopath like Piglet?

        My guess is that there was previous sexual activity and he got angry because she embarrassed him in front of his classmates, but she did it so she would have an excuse to keep him after class.

        • But how did he know in advance that she was going to catch him doodling during class AND punish him by keeping him after class?

          I was referring to the period of time between the class and the after-school meeting. I think it may have been about 2 hours.

          According to a student who sat next to him, he was drawing in his sketch book during the class while Colleen Ritzer was lecturing. Ritzer apparently got a look at what he was doing and said, “I didn’t know you could draw.” Then she asked him to meet with her in the classroom after school. The student thought the meeting would involve reviewing math problems because Ritzer often set up appointments like that for students. The appointments weren’t mandatory or disciplinary.

          Another student saw them in the classroom after school. He was seated at her desk working on her computer and she was standing next to him watching what he was doing.

          I wonder if he might have been sketching something that he did not want her to see and feared that he was going to get into some serious trouble.

          Just a guess, but I can’t think of any other reason why he might have decided to kill her.

        • Mandy says:

          He had a psychotic break brought on by her mentioning Tennessee where he was yanked from his connectedness and his girlfriend and all his friends. He went to the movie in a trance like state. He was in emotional shock. This is also why he wrote “I hate you all” because he was not connecting with the people of Mass. His friends were all in Tennessee. It was too much pain for him to have that ripped out of his life on top of all the psychological, physical and emotional abuse he experienced at the hands of his father as a youth.

  5. he has a very good lawyer. This is his bargaining chip. If he gives this up now he can not use it for a plea deal with the prosecution. (Just a thought.)

  6. shyloh says:

    I am at a loss for words right now. I had a lot to say…. haha…. then I went blank. This is just me, but if I were to kill someone, I’d give the reason why. Not before trial or during, but at the end if found guilty. I know my thinking is fried ha. I just don’t get why people don’t say why. Killing a spouse is just screwed up, Divorce is much easier on the soul then the pocketbook. But at least one will not sit in a box for years, then get put in a box with no one to talk to. UGH! Glad I haven’t done anything stupid like that.

    I’d love to get inside that kid’s head sometimes. Then again, I am thankful I don’t have that kind of mind! Sorry for rambling on!

    • The police suspect that the motive was unrequited love, but they do not have any evidence to support that theory.

      They have been in contact with police in Clarksville, Tennessee. He moved with his mom from Clarksville to Danvers two months ago. He had some minor contacts with cops there, but nothing suggesting he might do something like this. The cops in Clarksville are as puzzled as the cops in Danvers.

      • I think the unrequited-love theory is based on an absence of any evidence supporting a different theory, rather than any actual evidence of unrequited love.

        Ye olde, what else could it be, is a natural question to ask, but it’s nothing more than one of many unanswered questions at this point.

  7. Ezz-Thetic says:

    Kid is gonna fry.

    • Yes and no.

      Yes, he will likely be convicted because the prosecution has video from the school showing that he followed her into the faculty bathroom and emerged sometime later covered in blood pulling a recycling bin containing her dead body.

      He also told police how he killed her and what he used to do it. His statement is consistent with her injuries and cause of death.

      No, he won’t fry because Massachusetts does not have a death penalty, and even if it did, he’s too young to be sentenced to death. As I noted in the article, he cannot even be sentenced to life without parole.

      • “He also told police how he killed her and what he used to do it. His statement is consistent with her injuries and cause of death.”

        Confession, no? Even though motive is not an issue, could the Δ use motive for justification? Just asking….

        • Motive would not likely be used by the defense in an effort to justify the murder because slitting someone’s throat from behind isn’t justifiable. Assuming evidence exists to support it, the defense might choose to offer an explanation for the murder, such as the kid was experiencing a paranoid delusion.

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