By Ted Siefer
SALEM, Mass. (Reuters) - Lawyers for a Massachusetts teenager accused of murdering a teacher at his high school may argue that the defendant did not have the mental capacity to understand his actions, a judge advised potential jurors in the trial on Wednesday.
Jury selection began on Wednesday for the trial of Philip Chism, 16, on charges of raping and murdering Colleen Ritzer, a popular math teacher known for her upbeat personality at a high school in Danvers, a town of 26,000 about 20 miles (32 km) north of Boston. Ritzer was 24.
Chism, who is being tried as an adult for the murder charge, has pleaded not guilty. His attorneys are expected to argue his brain was not mature enough to understand the consequences of his action.
Essex County Superior Court Judge David Lowy told the first panel of potential jurors that they could not find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory charge of life in prison without parole, if he "lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or the wrongfulness of his conduct."
Prosecutors say that on Oct. 22, 2013, Chism, who was 14 at the time, was upset by a conversation he had with Ritzer, his algebra teacher. He followed her into the bathroom after school, cut her throat with a box cutter, and transported her body off campus in a recycling receptacle, prosecutors charge.
Ritzer's body was found in nearby woods with a note reading, "I hate you all."
The defendant, who was known as quiet and a talented soccer player, was described at the time as being under emotional strain after relocating to Danvers from Tennessee with his mother following his parents’ divorce.
Chism has also been charged as a juvenile for two counts of aggravated rape and armed robbery. Prosecutors say Chism took Ritzer's credit card and used it to buy fast food and go to a movie at a nearby mall.
Prosecutors are expected to present surveillance video from Danvers High School showing Chism following Ritzer into the bathroom and leaving pulling the recycling barrel. Chism initially provided a taped confession, but the judge has barred its admission on the grounds that Chism wasn't sufficiently aware of his rights and was pressured by police.
Jury selection is expected to take at least a week, with opening statements expected later in the month, according to prosecutors.
(Editing by Scott Malone, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey)