Simon Waxman: The requirement that minors accused of first-degree murder be tried as adults is an affront to reason and a challenge to the separation of juvenile and adult justice. In this photo, Phillip Chism, 14, from Danvers, Mass., is lead into the court room at his arraigned in Salem Superior Court, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, in Salem, Mass. Chism is charged in the Oct. 22 killing of a popular Danvers High School Math teacher Colleen Ritzer. (AP)

I couldn’t say for sure when I first learned I was an adult, but there’s a good chance it was June 6, 1998. On that day, I had my bar mitzvah. All I had to do was recite a small portion of Torah. Though I would continue for a while the youthful activities that had until then occupied my time — homework, obsessive cataloging of baseball cards, assiduous avoidance of girls (no longer icky, but still terrifying) — I had earned adult status.

The status, I later discovered, was a fiction, but without consequences. For some people, though, the consequences of fictitious adulthood can be significant.

One such person is Philip Chism. His name provokes no sympathy, nor should it. But it should provoke a degree of puzzlement.

If there are good reasons to treat adult and youth offenders differently, why are those reasons discarded according to the severity of the crime?

In October, Chism, who is 14, allegedly murdered his Danvers High School teacher, Colleen Ritzer. When, according to the indictment against him, he stabbed her to death, he became, in the eyes of the law, an adult. Yet when he also allegedly robbed and raped her, crimes that appear to have occurred in the same school bathroom, during same 12-minute span, he was a child. Today, he stands accused as an adult murderer and as a juvenile thief and rapist.

This fiction, whereby Chism is both adult and juvenile, is the product of a state law passed in 1994, which requires that individuals accused of first-degree murder be tried as adults. Every time the law is applied, but especially this time, given the contradictory charges against Chism, it raises a question that penetrates to the foundations of criminal justice. If there are good reasons to treat adult and youth offenders differently, why are those reasons discarded according to the severity of the crime?

On December 24, in an unrelated case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts suggested that it shouldn’t be — that the concerns motivating the adoption of a separate juvenile criminal process should not be ignored even in the cases of the most destructive offenses.

Colleen Ritzer (Facebook)

Colleen Ritzer (Facebook)

Holding that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder must be granted the possibility of parole, the Court described “distinctive characteristics of youth, which do not vary based on the nature of the crime committed . . . . even when [juveniles] commit terrible crimes.”

While the Court made clear that “the severity of [first-degree murder] cannot be minimized even if committed by a juvenile offender,” and while the Court maintained that it “is within the purview of the Legislature to treat juveniles who commit murder in the first degree more harshly than juveniles who commit other types of crimes,” it never strayed from the “‘precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’ to both the offender and the offense.” That precept was announced by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The notion that juveniles should be subject to different criminal trial procedures and outcomes stems from two commitments. The first is that a person found guilty must be culpable for the crime of which he is convicted.

The special challenge presented by youth culpability has been with us for ages. Early civil and religious legal systems — Roman, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, English common law — delineated points at which children were considered mature enough to warrant certain punishments. Years weren’t always determinative. As William Blackstone put it in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, “The capacity of doing ill, or contracting guilt, is not so much measured by years and days, as by the strength of the delinquent’s understanding and judgment.”

These days, we tend to put the legal age of adulthood at 18, on the assumption that young people are unable to sort out the consequences of a variety of important decisions — an assumption supported by research into the human brain. Psychologists and neuroscientists have found that impulse control and the ability to think in terms of future consequences are physically underdeveloped in the brain until after adolescence.

The second commitment concerns competence. Only the competent can be considered guilty, a factor that usually arises in trials of the mentally ill. But many young people share this particular kind of incompetence. In a 2003 study, Thomas Grisso, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and his colleagues found, “Approximately one-third of 11- to 13-year-olds, and approximately one-fifth of 14- to 15-year-olds, are as impaired in capacities relevant to adjudicative competence as are seriously mentally ill adults who would likely be considered incompetent to stand trial.”

If 20 percent of defendants his age are not competent to stand as adults, how confident can we be that his trial will be a fair one?

A defendant incompetent to stand trial is a defendant denied due process. And every defendant — even Chism, who is charged with a gruesome crime — is owed due process. If 20 percent of defendants his age are not competent to stand as adults, how confident can we be that his trial will be a fair one? A defendant can request a competency evaluation, but courts generally recognize mental illness, not immaturity, as a source of legally relevant incompetence.

Many observers will celebrate the fact that Chism is facing the adult process, believing that it will produce the harshest possible punishment. They may be right about that, although the juvenile system is hardly lenient. And due process requirements don’t exist solely to protect defendants, but also convictions: trying a juvenile via the adult process raises the possibility of appeal on the basis of incompetence.

But regardless of what happens to Chism, we are left with a state law that disables the juvenile system and creates a bizarre scenario in which a defendant can be simultaneously youth and adult. If the division between juvenile and adult justice serves any purpose, and if the law is supposed to provide a rational means of adjudicating harm, then the sacrifice of these aims should be a cause not of celebration but of alarm.


Tags: Crime, Law

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • J__o__h__n

    If we are going to be simplistic, a child who kills, is still a killer.

    • Mort Sinclair

      A distinction that implies what, exactly? A five-year-old child who kills is still a killer, too. Now what?

      • rich4321

        If a 5 year old is capable of pre-meditaed murder, yes he is a killer.

        • Mort Sinclair

          Okay, say that child committed a pre-mediated murder. Now what? How do you prosecute, but more specifically, sentence that child?

          • Rufus Pondskipper

            For a 5 year old who committed pre-meditated murder? You quickly and cleanly snap his neck thus saving society from the blight he will undoubtedly be

          • Mark

            Removal from society yes, most definitely – along with some mental health screening and psychologist appointments. At such an age be it 5 or 14, the brain is still developing so a proper diagnosis cannot be determined but keeping a constant tab while said murderers are imprisoned would be ideal. At the very least, science would benefit to learn more about *how* and *why* people snap and commit such horrible acts, and the prison system is messed up as it is with little to no treatment for mental illnesses. Time for a change!

          • Lawrence

            You remove him/her from society so they don’t commit these brutal crimes again.

  • Lawrence

    Well written article, albeit a left-wing, bleeding heart stance on this issue.

    It states “”that impulse control and the ability to think in terms of future
    consequences are physically underdeveloped in the brain until after

    OH really? Is that so? Well, just the fact that he hid the body, and planned his escape indicates that he knew full well, that if caught he faced serious “future consequences.”. Are you trying to tell us that he did not realize he would be arrested, and put in prison, maybe for life, for such a brutal sex act and murder?

    And regarding whether he is “mature” enough to warrant certain punishments, of course he is, no matter what the punishment is. This kind of gruesome and brutal act at such a young age reveals just what kind of evil this person possesses. There is no punishment harsh enough for him.

    • Andy

      I think the concern is less with the nature of the punishment than with the process of the punishment. I don’t see the author suggesting that Chism shouldn’t be punished severely or saying anything at all about what he knew or expected. The point is that the justice system needs to be designed so as to achieve a fair outcome in all cases. The juvenile system is there to make things fairer for young people, regardless of what they’ve done. You can call it a bleeding heart argument, but it isn’t that. It’s a reminder that we have a juvenile system for a reason.

    • rich4321

      “that impulse control and the ability to think in terms of future
      consequences are physically underdeveloped in the brain until after

      Such BS!

      • Simon Waxman

        As the author of this article, I’d like to say that I share rich4321’s skepticism in some measure.

        There is a limit to what research on brain development can teach us about the capacity to behave morally. There is a limit because of how little scientists know with real confidence. And there is a limit because even a complete understanding would not imply the solution to every moral dilemma. We could have a full accounting of the relationship between the brain and behavior and be left without consensus on which behaviors—on the parts of individuals and of states—are moral. We would still face the unresolved questions of what punishment is for and whether incarceration to protect the people should be the public’s only, or overwhelming, concern.

        Having said that, current scientific study on the neuroscientific study of criminality is at least worth one sentence among many, and that’s all it got. I wouldn’t reject it out of hand. New information yields new theories, which might affect moral calculations. It’s happened before. For instance, the once-accepted scientific theory that “lesser races” have lesser brains has been disproved, with benefits to moral behavior.

        • tim gibson

          You’re looking to “science” to decide what is moral.

      • Mort Sinclair

        You’ve clearly never spent any meaningful time working with teenagers. Their lack of impulse control is evident in all aspects of their lives, only usually with less lethal consequences.

        • tim gibson

          Premeditated by bringing the mask.gloves & clothes to school is not an impulse.How much time have you spent researching this murder?

  • Mort Sinclair

    Thank you for a thoughtful piece. I couldn’t agree more.

  • rich4321

    What is the argument about? Anyone born with a good nature would know killing another human being is wrong, child or not. What kind of legal precedence is going to set just because an under age killer gets away with murder? Murder is murder, there is absolutely no excuses!

    Why are these people harboring murders?

    • Dana

      Who is suggesting that anyone get away with murder? Your initial question is posed rhetorically, but it may be more apt than you realize, since clearly you have misunderstood everything written here.

    • Mark

      You have clearly missed the point of this article.

  • Eve

    Thank you, Mr. Waxman, for a thoughtful piece. Having worked, in the past, in both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, I am in complete agreement with your argument..

  • Stephen Rost

    The spirit-less are not yet spiritual children.

    • tim gibson

      That didn’t make sense

  • Shannon

    You should read The Guilty Innocent by Shannon Adamcik Apple iTunes Amazon

    • tim gibson

      You wrote a book?

  • rich4321

    I don’t understand why people would want to make excuses for young killers, it’s not like a kid steal a candy bar from CVS or something petty. He took a human life!
    Can one look into the eyes of the victims’ family and tell the family it’s OK because the killer is kid?

    • Tyler Collins

      Nobody is excusing what Phillip Chism did. The author does not sympathize with him – they, in fact, completely condemn it. As anybody should! However, this piece does pose a very interesting question and points out a strange legal paradox here in the state of Massachusetts. My personal view is that taking the life of a human is an adult act, and if you’re going to perform an act that an adult commits, then you should be tried as such. The concept of “adulthood” is nothing more than an abstraction. You can’t cling onto your youth as a defense for murder and rape. You stop being a child when you do that. When you face up to the consequences brought forth by the adult world — that’s the transformation from “adolescence” into “adulthood”. Not by turning 18, or having a bar mitzvah, or by upstarting a career in your 20’s.

      On the other hand, I think that you’re confusing “excuses for young killers” for trying to make sense of the circumstances leading up to such a horrible act. It’s a legitimate conversation that deserves to be in the limelight. If we can’t explain what makes a person kill, how can we ever hope to stop it before it happens?

      • tim gibson

        If he followed you into a bathroom with a boxcutter would you be sensitive to his circumstances?

        • Tyler Collins

          No, certainly not — but then that’s not the point here, either. Hindsight is 20/20, and when someone’s life choices and behavior leads up to somebody getting killed, they deserved to be objectively observed. I’m sorry you’re too emotionally blind to see that. I don’t blame you, though. It is an emotional case.

  • guest118

    In cases of first degree murder a young offender should be made to answer for their actions. In cases where the death penalty applies try them like an adult with a jury of their peers and if applicable ask for the death penalty. But… have them serve some time until they reach 18 years old in juvenille jail and when they turn 18 transfer them to adult prison. If no death penalty… life without parole served in juvinile to start out then transfer to adult prison.
    He didn’t just kill this teacher…. he raped, robbed and killed her. this clearly shows premeditation. There was a set plan he had for her. In mass. life without parole….not 25 to life… straight up life. Let him live his life thinking about his heinous act every day until he dies.

  • puffdaddy

    He calculated the murder and it was brutal and hateful. We are to give him “help” until he is 18 – and then what? He is free to roam around and kill again?

  • Wendy

    Thank you, Mr. Waxman, for this thoughtful commentary. I could not agree more. In this country we do not let our children drive a car before they are 16, vote in elections or serve in the military until they are 18, and drink alcohol until they are 21. We acknowledge with our laws that children’s brains are not fully developed to understand the consequences of their actions, nor can they handle the impulses that beset them. On what basis is it reasonable to consider a 14 year old an adult? This is a very sad story and a horrific crime. But it doesn’t make a 14 year old an adult.

  • Lophius

    I’ve worked with 12-14 year old students for over a decade, and this can be a terribly chaotic age, not just for the young person, but also for those around her/him (parents, teachers, mentors, friends). No longer “children”, not yet “adults”, they are in this unpredictable period we call adolescence. At times the “child” is dominant, other times the “adult” tries to emerge. But, most of the time it is a mix, often resulting in a bit of a mess! What is a constant, however, is CHANGE. My students are different when they leave in June compared to when they began in September. And, I’ve always cherished the times when my former students visit, giving me a glimpse of how they are continuing to grow and mature.

    There is not an easily identifiable line we can draw between childhood and adulthood. Just look at historical debates about when we are allowed to drive, work, buy a beer, drop out of school or join the military. I don’t believe a 14 year should serve life without parole. But, I also don’t believe he should go free at 18. Murders committed by young people are terribly ugly and sad cases that will require our society to do a lot more work to figure out. In the meantime, we are going to have very messy “solutions” that are not going to satisfy everyone, and probably upset many…

  • Jan Dumas

    Well if 20% of children are not competent to stand trial we have an 80% chance that he will be competent. We are talking about rape and murder here, not vandalism!

  • John Doe

    why all the hate for peter chism? i feel the same way sometimes, like slitting someone’s throat. Why? because I am a human being and have antisocial thoughts from time to time. I think the problem is that people label these killers as “evil,” when it is likely all in the wiring of someone’s brain. If i ever lose control, I know I will feel regret. I sympathisize with chism

    • tim gibson

      You feel like cutting someone’s throat?

    • KillersAreEvil

      Yes everyone has thoughts of killing someone. But if you make that choice to end someones life over a detention, you are not only evil, youre not a human being. You sympathize with a killer but not the victim? What did she do to deserve a gruesome death? TELL ME

    • Calvin Hobbes

      Ummmm…. Dude, you need help.


  • PaulD

    Most people recognize that a person becomes an adult somewhat gradually and can accept certain responsibilities over time. We all people to drive at 16yo, vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18 and buy alcohol and guns at 21.

    You seem to be arguing that a person can’t accept the responsibility not to kill another human until 18. Are you will to give an 18yo all responsibilities of being an adult? Buy alcohol? Buy a gun?

  • LAM82

    Just want to make one clarification that really bothers me with regard to comments below about philip chism having “raped” the victim. Far from it. He may have sexually assaulted her with a stick, but by no means should that be called RAPE. Sexual assault yes. Rape no. It just paints the wrong picture to also call him a rapist. While he clearly murdered her, true rape was not part of the mix. It is an important distinction to make if one is looking to uncover “motive.” The one missing piece to this puzzle.

    • tim gibson

      Details of the rape weren’t released.The rape will not be discussed until the trial.

      • LAM82

        Interesting. I was not aware there were details that have yet to be released surrounding the rape charge. I had only heard of the stick assault.

      • LAM82

        And who are you anyway, Tim Gibson ? You talk as if you are the authority on this case. The more I think about it, if details haven’t been released, how would YOU know anything beyond what we all know? You wouldn’t. And if you did, you wouldn’t be on this site informing us of things that haven’t even been released yet.

        • tim gibson

          Who are you? His attorney said that further disclosures could lead to a mistrial. Read the timeline of the school cameras. He wasn’t in there combing his hair

  • disillusioned56

    A “child” who becomes a parent must also bear the consequences of her actions the same way as an adult. We try to PREVENT juveniles from making bad choices by restricting what they can do, but if they do it anyway, the consequences should be the same.