Parents of murdered Danvers teacher Colleen Ritzer fight push to eliminate life no parole sentences

BOSTON — In Massachusetts, the harshest criminal penalty is life without the possibility of parole. It is an alternative to the death penalty and is reserved for people convicted of First-Degree Murder.

On Tuesday, the Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on H.1797 entitled, “An Act To Reduce Mass Incarceration.” The bill would eliminate Life No Parole and replace it with provisions guaranteeing parole hearings to all inmates after 25 years. The bill is retroactive and would apply to all inmates in the Massachusetts prison system.

The bill is among 52 on correctional services and sentencing under consideration.

Many families of Massachusetts murder victims are outraged and are lining up to testify against H.1797.

Among them, Peggie and Tom Ritzer, the parents of Colleen Ritzer, the Danvers High School teacher murdered in 2013.

“We don’t get Colleen back. She doesn’t her life back,” Peggie Ritzer said. “We don’t get our family’s life back. They shouldn’t get their life back.”

“This is just wrong. This guy planned what he was going to do; he took Colleen’s life. She’s not getting her life back, he shouldn’t get his life back,” Tom Ritzer added.

Philip Chism, a high school student, was convicted of raping and murdering Colleen. Her body was found in a wooded area near Danvers High School. Because Chism was a teenager at the time, he could not be sentenced to Life No Parole, but was given a 40-year sentence. This means Chism will be able to petition for his release from prison.

Chism’s sentence will not be impacted however the legislature votes on H. 1797. But Colleen’s parents want to spare other families from what they will endure. In their first-ever TV interview, they said they will be testifying against H. 1797.

“We haven’t and we purposely haven’t, [we’ve been] waiting for the right reason to do so. And this is the right reason to do so,” Peggie Ritzer said about speaking to the media. “They’re putting the killer’s life ahead of the victim’s life. They are in essence saying the victim’s life doesn’t matter. And their lives mattered. Our lives matter.”

Sean Alyward is the brother of murder victim Beth Brodie, murdered in Groveland in 1992. Brodie’s convicted killer was 16 years old. Sean is also planning to testify against H. 1797.

“I just want them to know, I haven’t gone away, the victims haven’t gone away,” Alyward said. “We must honor the victims. There is no honor in being a criminal. The criminals made a choice. The victims did not.”

Colleen Ritzer’s parents said, because of the length of Chism’s sentence, it will likely be up to their other children to one day have to appear before a parole board and fight against any attempt by Colleen’s killer to earn parole. Colleen’s father said he has a simple message for Massachusetts lawmakers who might consider eliminating Life No Parole:

“This is wrong. Don’t do it to the families. Don’t do it,” he said. “Think about what you are doing to the victims’ families and what they have to go through.”

Boston 25 News emailed state representatives Liz Miranda and Jay Livingstone who are listed as the presenters of the legislation.

Rep. Miranda’s office told us in part: “I believe that Life Without Parole is death by another name -- And I don’t believe in death sentences, I don’t believe that justice is upholding Mass Incarceration in our communities, which continues to perpetuate the generational poverty, violence, and trauma that causes more harm and more tragedy.”

To view the hearing details, please click here.