From the Frederick Leatherman Law Blog

Warning: Article contains graphic content

Go to this link to read the 9-page affidavit filed in support of the application for a search warrant in Philip Chism’s case. Warning: Contains graphic details.

Screenshot of Danver High School

14-year-old Philip Chism will be tried as an adult in  a murder case.

Today I am going to analyze the prosecution’s case against Philip Chism and ask readers to indicate which of three alternative ways of proving first degree murder they would select, if they were to prosecute this case.

The prosecution is not limited to proving only one theory. Separate verdict forms can be submitted as to each alternative way of proving first degree murder. To convict him of first degree murder, the prosecution need only prove one alternative. Proving one, two or all three alternative methods of committing a crime only proves one crime and only one sentence may be imposed for that one crime.

Even though Philip Chism is only 14-years-old, he will be prosecuted as an adult because Massachusetts has a statute that mandates the prosecution as adults of all juveniles over the age of 13 who are charged with murder. If convicted, he cannot be sentenced to death because Massachusetts does not have a death penalty.

He also cannot be sentenced to life without possibility of parole (LWOP) because the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has prohibited sentencing juveniles under the age of 16 to LWOP.

He cannot be prosecuted as an adult for the charges of aggravated rape and armed robbery unless the juvenile court declines jurisdiction. Therefore, he will have to be arraigned in juvenile court on those charges.

After the arraignment, the prosecutor will file a motion asking the juvenile court to decline jurisdiction and to transfer those two charges to adult court for adjudication on the grounds that, if convicted, the court lacks the resources to rehabilitate him before he turns 21 and the alleged crimes are an inextricable part of a single criminal episode that includes the murder over which the juvenile court lacks jurisdiction. Readers can reasonably expect the juvenile court will grant the prosecution’s request.

Philip Chism will be arraigned on the three charges in adult court. Pleas of not guilty will be entered on his behalf and his counsel will be provided with discovery.

Eventually, he will have to decide whether to go to trial and contest the charges or plead guilty.

Every defendant in a criminal case has a right to be presumed innocent and go to trial, even if he committed the crime(s) charged, and the jury must be instructed to return a verdict of not guilty as to each charge, if the prosecution fails to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Given his confession that is confirmed by the videotape from a hallway camera showing him entering the women’s bathroom while wearing a jacket, hat and gloves and departing sometime after that with her body in a recycling bin, little doubt exists that he killed her while acting alone.

First degree murder in Massachusetts is defined by Chapter 265, Section 1 as:

Murder committed with deliberately premeditated malice aforethought, or with extreme atrocity or cruelty, or in the commission or attempted commission of a crime punishable with death or imprisonment for life, is murder in the first degree.

Notice that there are 3 ways to commit this crime:

  1. Murder committed with deliberately premeditated malice aforethought;
  2. Murder committed with extreme atrocity or cruelty; or
  3. Murder committed in the commission or attempted commission of a crime punishable with death or imprisonment for life.

Analysis of the statute

The prosecution may be able to prove that he committed the murder by each of the following three methods:

He came to school with a box cutter, balaklava ski mask, gloves and multiple changes of clothing strongly suggesting that he premeditated the murder with malice aforethought.

The second option does not require proof of intent to kill or premeditation, if the murder itself demonstrated extreme atrocity or cruelty. The use of a boxcutter to slash her throat from behind while gripping her hair and pulling her head back suggests extreme atrocity or cruelty as would the use of the box cutter ante mortem to penetrate and slash her vagina (see below).

The third option is a felony-murder rule that does not require proof of intent to kill or premeditation, if the murder occurred during the commission of a felony that can result in a life sentence. Aggravated rape and armed robbery are felonies that can result in life sentences, so a murder committed during the commission of either those felonies would be a first degree murder.

Aggravated rape requires proof of penetration of the vagina, no matter how slight, with the penis or finger(s), or an object and proof of the use of force or threatened use of force. Massachusetts defines penetration of the mouth or anus as “unnatural sexual intercourse.”

Proof beyond a reasonable doubt of any of the following three felonies will satisfy the use-of-force element:

  1. assault with a dangerous weapon; or
  2. robbery; or
  3. armed robbery.

According to the news report last night, the prosecution has alleged that he penetrated her vagina with an object. If the object is the box cutter used ante mortem, that would likely establish that the murder was committed with extreme atrocity or cruelty.

Her body was found in the woods supine with her legs spread and a tree branch inserted into her vagina. Since this staging occurred post mortem, it should not be considered as evidence establishing that the murder was committed with extreme atrocity or cruelty.

Police also found a note with the body that said, “I hate you all.”

If you were prosecuting this case, which alternative way of proving first degree murder would you choose (assuming you had to choose one)?

Or, which alternatives are the easiest and weakest to prove and why?

Here’s a link to a Boston Globe story about the affidavit.

TV News Screenshot from WHDH-TV.