BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — SALEM — Prosecutors yesterday sought to dispel some of the more sensational speculation about the slaying of a popular Danvers High School teacher last month, even as they fought to keep most of the details about the case under wraps for at least a few more weeks.
Colleen Ritzer, 24, of Andover, was found dead in a wooded area near the school on Oct. 23; her 14-year-old student, Philip Chism, has been charged with first-degree murder.
But with few details released by authorities, there has been some speculation as to motive.
“There is absolutely no evidence of any misconduct or wrongdoing by Ms. Ritzer,” prosecutor David O’Sullivan said during a hearing on a motion by attorneys for several news organizations, including The Salem News, to unseal search warrant materials in the case.
Lawyers for the newspaper, its sister paper The Eagle-Tribune, The Danvers Herald, the Associated Press and The Boston Globe argued yesterday that the decision by Salem District Court Judge Michael Lauranzano to seal the documents, including an affidavit detailing evidence in the case, was unjustified under the law, which states that those materials are considered public unless “good cause” is shown for their impoundment.
Michael Grygiel, a lawyer representing The Salem News and several other organizations, argued that the public has a legitimate interest in learning details about the case given the “epidemic of violence occurring in our schools,” something he called a “vital public-safety issue.”
But the media attorneys were flanked by two prosecutors, Chism’s attorney and a lawyer representing the family of Ritzer, all of whom opposed release of the documents.
O’Sullivan yesterday offered to release a redacted version of the documents but said that prosecutors are concerned that the exposure of witness names, including the names of teenagers, and certain details could affect their testimony before the grand jury and their willingness to testify. He and prosecutor Kate MacDougall are asking that the impoundment be extended at least until Nov. 22, when the grand jury is expected to complete its work.
Grygiel called that argument “entirely speculative,” and outside court, he suggested that the students are very likely discussing the case among themselves.
If prosecutors could show a specific concern, argued lawyer Peter Caruso, who represents The Salem News and The Eagle-Tribune, the news organizations would be amenable to having the names of witnesses blacked out.
Both O’Sullivan and Dan Murphy, a lawyer for the Ritzer family, raised privacy concerns.
“It’s been less than two weeks since this horrible murder of Colleen Ritzer,” Murphy said. “This family has endured unbearable pain.”
“All I can say is this family needs time to grieve, and they ought to be afforded that opportunity,” Murphy said outside court.
Grygiel argued that prosecutors have already discussed the details with the family during a meeting last week. And privacy as a grounds for impoundment was rejected by the Supreme Judicial Court during another high-profile Essex County murder case, the 2000 murder of Karen Sharpe by her husband, Dr. Richard Sharpe, in Wenham, when news organizations sought access to the couple’s divorce records.
Susan Oker, who is a public defender representing Chism, also argued against the release, but on different grounds, suggesting that not only could “sensational” information taint the potential jury pool, but that some of the information contained in the documents — including Chism’s statement to police the night of his arrest — might be inadmissible at trial.
She also argued that Chism’s youth should be a factor considered by the judge.
Deana El-Mallawany, an attorney for The Boston Globe, suggested that while certainly “daunting” for the defendant to be just 14 and facing a murder charge, his youth is not a valid factor for the judge to consider.
Lauranzano took the request under advisement and is expected to rule sometime this week. But his ruling could be stayed should the District Attorney’s office or the defense seek to appeal, he told the lawyers.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.