EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 8, 2013

Judge refuses to unseal court documents in teacher's slaying

By Ethan Forman
Staff Writer

---- — SALEM, Mass. — A Salem District Court judge has refused to lift an order impounding search warrant returns in the case of the Danvers High math teacher who was killed at the school, allegedly by one of her students.

In refusing to make the reports public, Salem District Court Judge Michael Lauranzano cited an ongoing grand jury investigation and the privacy rights of the family of Colleen Ritzer of Andover, the slain teacher. Lauranzano had allowed a motion to impound the documents on Oct. 24.

The Eagle-Tribune, its sister paper, The Salem News, The Associated Press and other media outlets went to court to try to unseal the documents, claiming that the public had a legal right to see them.

The impoundment order will remain in effect until Nov. 22, when the grand jury investigation is expected to be completed.

The judge said the release of information contained in state Trooper Robert LaBarge’s search warrant before it was presented to the grand jury could “affect/prejudice an ongoing criminal investigation by potentially influencing witnesses who are expected to testify before the grand jury.”

The privacy interests of the victim’s family also weighed heavily in Lauranzano’s decision.

“Release of this information now, without some additional time for the Ritzer family to come to terms with this horrific event, seems to me, to be unconscionable,” the judge said.

The 24-year-old’s teacher’s body was found in the woods near Danvers High after she was allegedly murdered by a 14-year-old student, Philip Chism, sometime after school on Oct. 22.

To date, the district attorney’s office has released few details about the crime.

A spokeswoman for District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said he would have no comment on Lauranzano’s ruling, which came yesterday morning.

Lauranzano’s three-page decision follows a hearing on Monday at which attorneys for the press argued for release of the search warrant documents.

Prosecutors, as well as attorneys for both Chism and the Ritzer family, argued against their release.

Lauranzano agreed with the state Supreme Judicial Court that “when filed in court, search warrant materials are judicial records to which the public’s presumptive right to access applies,” but also said judges may impound documents — sealing them from public view — “where good cause is demonstrated.”

Judges must make those decisions on a case-by-case basis, he said, considering “the nature of the parties and the controversies involved, the types of information and the privacy interests involved, the extent of community interest and the reason for the impoundment request.”

Peter Caruso, a lawyer representing The Eagle-Tribune and The Salem News, said the decision was disappointing, especially after the District Attorney’s Office had agreed to release a redacted version of the warrant documents, which would have shielded the names of juvenile witnesses and some confidential details of the crime.

“Keeping secret the entire search warrant procedure does not follow the spirit and intent of the SJC’s decisions,” Caruso said, “The public is left to wonder and speculate about very serious police actions that only the DA knows and wants to keep secret. ... The public remains in the dark.”

Caruso said there were “no specific reasons cited by the court to keep the entire procedure secret, as the Supreme Judicial Court has required.”