Jury selection began this past Wednesday in the murder trial of teen Philip Chism. The judge presiding over the murder trial of Philip Chism reprimanded a prospective juror after another member of the jury pool disclosed that the juror had violated a court order by trying to discuss the case. The judge ordered a transcript of what 6 other potential jurors said the man told them in the voir dire waiting room. Judge David Lowy summoned the potential juror to testify at Essex Superior Court under oath. Juror 39, a man, said he told the other prospective jurors that he probably would not be selected because his son attends the school where the murder occurred (Danvers High School). Lowy told Juror 39 that discussing the case with other prospective jurors constitutes criminal contempt of court. The District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the matter.
“What you did is a serious violation,” Lowy said. “It has cost this court…”
Chism, 16, is accused of raping and murdering his math teacher Colleen Ritzer, 24, when he was 14. He is being tried as an adult and has pled not guilty. Juror 39 apologized for his behavior, “I didn’t mean to do that, I’m sorry your honor.” It is unclear whether his statements have corrupted the rest of the jurors he spoke to.
Judge Lowy also asked the man whether he discussed attending a candlelight vigil for the victim, something he did not previously disclose to the court. Juror 39 said he couldn’t remember whether he talked about it, but he did attend a vigil. Defense attorney Denise Regan said Juror 39 made comments about Chism having previously been convicted for something else and was trying to “get out of” this one. While Chism has attended other court proceedings this is his first trial. She requested that he be excused and that any other juror exposed to his prejudicial statements also be let go. The juror was excused because his son attended the high school where the murder allegedly occurred. The matter is scheduled for a hearing later.
Regan called the discussion, “quite damaging and incorrect.”
Some of the jurors who overheard the discussion were dismissed. At least 2 of them, however, have advanced to the next round of jury selection. By the end of Thursday, Lowy and the lawyers had interviewed 32 jurors, including 16 who were asked to return the next week.
Essex Assistant District Attorney Kate MacDougall asked many of the prospective jurors if Chism’s age at the time of the offense would affect their ability to fairly and impartially judge him as he is charged, an adult. Chism was only 14. The defense focused on whether the jurors understood the concept of presumption of innocence. They also explored a not guilty by reason of insanity finding, asking jurors how they felt about that option. Chism’s lawyers have never explicitly stated that they intend to pursue an insanity defense. The defense also asked jurors about whether or not the fact that Ritzer was white and Chism is African-American would affect them.
Prospective jurors who reported reading or hearing that Chism confessed were excused. A judge ruled that the confession and other statements made to the police were a violation of Chism’s rights. Friday, another 110 potential jurors underwent questioning. Jury selection is slated to continue this week.
A student in Ritzer’s class with Chism told police that she overheard the teacher ask Chism to stay after school because he wasn’t paying attention in class. Prosecutors have alleged that Chism became angry when Ritzer asked him to stay after school and he attacked her in a school bathroom before disposing of her body in woods near the school. The prosecution said that her cause of death was a slit throat. They believe the murder weapon was a box cutter. Chism had recently moved from Tennessee to Massachusetts.
16 prospective jurors have been tentatively seated, including a firefighter, a victim of a violent crime, and a female engineer who teaches dance on the side.