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October 30, 2013

Newspapers fight sealing of documents in case of murdered teacher

Attorneys for The Eagle-Tribune, The Salem News and other news organizations are challenging a Salem, Mass., District Court judge's order sealing search warrant documents related to the investigation into the murder of Colleen Ritzer.

Philip Chism, 14, is charged in the slaying of 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 documents 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 reasons for 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 documents identify witnesses who have not testified before a grand jury.

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

“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.”

Joining in the newspapers' efforts are attorneys for the Associated Press and GateHouse Media Inc. A hearing on the request has been scheduled for Friday.

Manganis writes for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.

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