Monday, November 4, 2013
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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