DANVERS — It has been nearly two years since the family of slain Danvers High School math teacher Colleen Ritzer filed a civil lawsuit against the town of Danvers and two businesses, looking for answers as to how her rape and murder could have happened in a school that boasted state-of-the-art security.
So far, they have not received them.
Instead, on Thursday, Tom and Peggie Ritzer watched from a courtroom gallery as lawyers for the town and school department, DiNisco Design Partnership, and SJ Services asked a Lawrence Superior Court judge to throw out their lawsuit.
Then, at the end of the hearing, Judge Jeffrey Karp urged all of the parties to consider court-supervised conciliation – something that could give them answers without the trauma of lengthy litigation.
In October 2013, Ritzer, of Andover, was a 24-year-old teacher in her second year at the school, which had just undergone a major renovation project that had included the installation of 140 security cameras inside and outside the building.
But no one was watching those cameras on the afternoon of Oct. 22, when student Philip Chism followed Ritzer into a bathroom and attacked her. The cameras had also been mislabeled, police testified during Chism's 2015 trial.
Lawyer Michael Stone, representing DiNisco, the designer of the system, said the cameras "did exactly what they were designed to do," and the evidence from them "was an integral part of the prosecution."
The cameras, argued Stone, served two purposes, deterrence and providing evidence after the fact.
Beyond that, Stone said, his client had no role in saying how the school should use the system and whether it should have had a person watching the screens.
"Somebody monitoring the cameras would not have changed anything," Stone said.
"How is that possible?" asked Karp.
When Stone suggested that such a conclusion would be based on "speculation and surmise," the judge appeared to disagree.
"It seems to me if it's being monitored, someone would be able to recognize ... there is some issue going on with a kid who has bloody clothes on, or a kid putting gloves on to go into a women's bathroom, or just going into the women's bathroom."
And when Stone suggested that only "nuclear power plant and casino" surveillance cameras were monitored, Karp disagreed, citing other examples including jails, hospitals, even parking garages.
"They wouldn't need 24-hour monitoring," said Karp. "They would have needed it during school hours."
When the judge turned to Ritzer family lawyer Daniel Murphy, he noted that Karp had already made many of his arguments for him.
SJ Services lawyer Christopher Parkerson argued that the firm's workers, who encountered the aftermath of the first attack on Ritzer and reported it to a town-employed maintenance worker, owed no duty to preserve the crime scene.
"My client's a janitorial service," Parkerson argued. "They were told to clean the bathroom and they cleaned the bathroom."
But Murphy said they – like anyone else – owes a general duty to avoid causing harm to others.
"They saw the scene of a slaughter," Murphy argued. Yet, "nothing was done, nothing was reported."
When asked by the judge how that specifically harmed the Ritzers, Murphy pointed out that the distraught parents not only tried to find their daughter but waited for answers until 4 a.m. the next day, all the while SJ Services had knowledge that might have led to them finding her sooner – even, possibly, while there was a chance to save her.
Town officials, through their attorney in the case, John Davis, argue that the district is protected by legal immunity for the acts of a third party, that they made no personal guarantees of safety to Ritzer or her family, and also asked that the case be dismissed on procedural grounds because, Davis argued, two letters sent to officials prior to the filing of the suit were either not specific enough or were sent to him and not an "executive officer of the town."
Karp said that he's read all of the motions, filed more than a year ago, but needs time to consider the case law on each of the issues raised by the lawyers.
He also acknowledged the length of time it has taken for the case to get a hearing, citing a shortage of judges that forced numerous postponements since last year.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.