Family of slain Danvers teacher calls SJC ruling eliminating life without parole sentences for juvenile killers ‘betrayal’ of victims

The family of Colleen Ritzer, the Danvers High School teacher killed in October, today criticized the decision by the state’s highest court to strike down life sentences for juveniles, calling it unjust and inhumane to victims and their families.

The Ritzers, in a statement, said they feel “a deep sense of betrayal and anguish” over last week’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court eliminating life sentences without parole for juveniles.

The justices, citing a growing body of research into the juvenile brain, called life imprisonment cruel and unusual because the brains of youths “are not fully developed.” The ruling was retroactive, meaning offenders who received mandatory life sentences as juveniles could now be eligible for parole.

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Ritzer, a popular teacher and vivacious 24-year-old who had a gift for connecting with students, was found dead in the woods behind Danvers High School on Oct. 23, a day after she had stayed late to help a 14-year-old who had recently moved from Tennessee prepare for an upcoming exam.

Philip D. Chism allegedly raped and killed Ritzer and robbed her of her cellphone, credit cards, and underwear before dumping her body near the school, Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office has alleged in court papers.

Chism, who was indicted in Essex County last month, will face the first degree murder charge as an adult; for his indictments on the rape and armed robbery charges, he was treated as a juvenile, and those charges at least initially will be handled in Salem Juvenile Court.

Chism has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is currently being held without bail.

Prior to the SJC ruling, Chism faced a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The Ritzer family said the decision “provides more rights to those youths convicted of horrible and heinous crimes than victims and their families.’’

“Our daughter and sister Colleen was taken in a cruel manner; we are now forced to endure a tremendous loss for life while her likely attacker will be afforded the opportunity for parole if convicted. There will never be ‘parole’ for our family’s life sentence without Colleen.

“If the individual charged with her horrific murder is convicted and sentenced to life in prison, he must never, ever have an opportunity for parole. Paroling such violent offenders would be more cruel and unusual punishment to victims’ families and loved ones.

“This decision should not be applauded, rather overturned as an act of justice and humanity to victims of violent crimes and their families,’’ the family said in the statement.