November 5, 2013

Press seeks documents in killing of Massachusetts teacher

A 14-year-old boy has been charged in her death.

The Associated Press

SALEM, Mass. — News organizations asked a Massachusetts judge Monday to lift an order barring public viewing of documents in the case of a 14-year-old boy charged with killing his math teacher.

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Danvers High School math teacher Colleen Ritzer is seen in this photo provided by her family. A teenager has been charged in her death.

The Associated Press

Lawyers for The Associated Press, The Boston Globe and other news outlets argued in Salem District Court that a search warrant affidavit and related documents should be made public in the case of Philip Chism, who has been charged with the Oct. 22 murder of Colleen Ritzer, a 24-year-old math teacher at Danvers High School.

Chism, who had recently moved from Tennessee to Massachusetts, was a student in Ritzer’s algebra I class. Students have said they overheard Ritzer ask Chism to stay after class the day she was killed.

Blood was found in a school bathroom and Ritzer’s body was later discovered in woods behind the school. Authorities have offered no clues on any possible motive.

Prosecutors asked the judge to continue to keep the names of underage witnesses sealed, as well as certain sensitive details of the investigation into Ritzer’s killing, at least until Nov. 22, when a grand jury is expected to finish hearing evidence.

Assistant District Attorney David O’Sullivan said that releasing the names of students who will testify before the grand jury could prompt the press to interview them, which could influence their testimony or make them afraid to cooperate with authorities.

O’Sullivan also argued that Ritzer’s family has a right to privacy.

“There is absolutely no evidence of any misconduct or any wrongdoing by Miss Ritzer, of any sort,” he said.

Daniel Murphy, an attorney for the Ritzers, said her family “has endured unmentionable pain” and asked that the documents remain sealed, at least for now, so that the family can receive information from the DA’s office before it is reported by the press.

“All I can say is that this family needs time to grieve, and that they ought to be afforded that opportunity,” Murphy said after the hearing.

Susan Oker, one of Chism’s attorneys, asked that the documents remain sealed until the end of Chism’s trial.

Oker said the search warrant documents contain “potentially excludable and inadmissible” evidence, including statements Chism made to police. She said some of the information is highly prejudicial to his right to a fair trial and could infect the jury pool. She argued that the court could consider the “extremely young age of the defendant.”

Mike Grygiel, a lawyer for The Associated Press, GateHouse Media Inc. and Community Newspaper Holdings, said prosecutors have not shown the necessary “good cause” to keep the documents sealed from public view.

Grygiel argued that the press has a right to report on the “epidemic” of school violence, a topic that is of great concern to the public.

Grygiel also argued that prosecutors have not shown that making the documents public will influence the testimony of young witnesses who are called before the grand jury.

Judge Michael Lauranzano indicated he would rule this week.

O’Sullivan said that if the judge rules against prosecutors, they will likely appeal the ruling.

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