SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 29, 2013

Newspapers challenge judge's sealing of documents in murder case

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — Attorneys for The Salem News, Eagle-Tribune and other news organizations are challenging a Salem District Court judge’s order sealing search warrant materials in the Philip Chism murder case.

Chism, 14, is charged with murder in the death of Colleen Ritzer, 24, last Tuesday at Danvers High School, where she was Chism’s math teacher.

Late Thursday afternoon, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office filed a motion to impound the search warrant materials that were returned by a state police investigator in the case, including an affidavit outlining the facts of the case and other evidence being sought.

They are normally considered public records unless a judge finds good cause to seal them. Judges are required to make written findings detailing those reasons.

The request to seal the materials was granted by Judge Michael Lauranzano, who also sealed the motion outlining the prosecution’s request to seal the materials.

A spokeswoman for Blodgett said Friday that the request was made on three grounds: concern for prejudicing Chism’s right to a fair trial, the emotional impact that details of the crime might have on Ritzer’s family and friends, and the fact that the materials identify witnesses who have not testified before a grand jury.

Peter Caruso, of the firm Caruso and Caruso, which is representing The Salem News and Eagle-Tribune, argued in a motion filed yesterday morning that such concerns fail to meet the high standard required to overcome the presumption of public access to the materials.

“The press’s ability to keep the public informed is premised in large part on open access to the court system, and on its ability to examine and report on judicial documents,” Caruso wrote. “The impoundment challenged by (the newspapers) here seeks to deny that access, and will impede the press from carrying out its important responsibility of reporting fully and accurately on a newsworthy matter of legitimate public concern.”

Such concerns as privacy have not been held by courts to be sufficient grounds for withholding the materials, Caruso argued. And if there are law enforcement interests in withholding certain details, such as the identity of witnesses, a judge is required to tailor any impoundment to restrict only that information.

“If disclosure of some portion of the records could materially impact any ongoing investigation, then those portions can be redacted and the remainder made available to the public for inspection,” Caruso argued.

Moreover, Lauranzano failed to follow the Massachusetts Uniform Rules on Impoundment Procedure, he argued. Those rules, which require that notice be given to interested third parties and that a judge make written findings, have been in place in civil proceedings for many years. In 2011, they were also held by the Supreme Judicial Court to apply to criminal cases.

While a number of details have emerged in the case, they have come from law enforcement sources speaking on condition of anonymity, not from other official sources or the District Attorney’s office, which on Wednesday refused even to confirm that the death was the result of a stabbing, or where it took place.

Blodgett also announced to the press on Wednesday that the court proceeding in the case would take place in a closed juvenile court; that turned out to not be the case after discussions between the presiding judges of the Salem juvenile and district courts and prosecutors, and Chism was arraigned in Salem District Court.

In another departure from normal procedure, however, only a three-paragraph “statement of facts” was included in the public case file, rather than the full police report typically required by a clerk to make a probable-cause determination for charges to be issued.

Joining in the newspaper’s efforts are attorneys for the Associated Press and GateHouse Media Inc.

A hearing on the request was scheduled for yesterday afternoon, but was delayed after Blodgett’s office objected on procedural grounds. The hearing has been rescheduled for Friday.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.