Judge refuses to unseal documents in murder of Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer

A Salem District Court judge today refused to unseal a search warrant affidavit filed in the investigation of the murder of Danvers High School teacher Colleen Ritzer, saying in a ruling made public Friday that releasing details of the case could affect witnesses’ grand jury testimony and would be cruel to the victim’s family.

Ritzer was allegedly murdered inside Danvers High School by Philip Chism, a 14-year-old sophomore who was one of Ritzer’s math students.

The affidavit was filed by police as part of a request for a warrant to search Chism’s home. Such affidavits usually outline the case being built by investigators to convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe that a search will find evidence of a crime.

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Several news organizations, including The Boston Globe, sought to have the affidavit unsealed because authorities have released few details about the case, including what allegedly motivated Chism.

But Judge Michael C. Lauranzano said that releasing details of the case, which drew attention worldwide, could “effect/prejudice an on-going criminal investigation by potentially influencing witnesses who are expected to testify before the Grand Jury.”

“Some of these witnesses are not equipped to handle the media attention that will be drawn to them as soon as their identities are revealed,” he wrote.

He also said he was acting to give the Ritzer family more time to cope with the shock of her death.

“I also find that the privacy interests of the victim’s family are implicated in this case. ... 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 wrote.

Chism has been charged with first-degree murder as an adult and pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Salem District Court Oct. 23. He is currently being held without bail by the Department of Youth Services at the request of Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins’ office.

During their investigation, State and Danvers police along with Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office, executed the warrant, but then asked for the affidavit that explained the legal basis for the search to be sealed from public view, along with other documents.

On Monday, attorneys for the Globe asked Lauranzano to unseal the affidavit and other records, a move opposed by Blodgett’s office and an attorney for Ritzer’s family, who told the judge her family was still grieving the loss of the popular 24 year-old teacher.

Michael J. Grygiel, an Albany, N.Y., lawyer represented the Associated Press, GateHouse Media, and the Eagle Tribune Publishing Co. in court.

Lauranzano, in his decision released today, extended the sealing of the affidavit to Nov. 22, the date that prosecutors have said they would finish presenting evidence to the grand jury.

Chism moved to Danvers this summer from Tennessee with his mother and sisters. Friends and relatives have said he was unhappy about the move, but described him as friendly and sweet. He had made friends in Danvers and was a soccer standout.

Police have said Ritzer was stabbed and cut with a box cutter, possibly in a school bathroom. Her body was recovered in the woods next to the school.

Students have said that on the day she disappeared, Oct. 22, Ritzer had asked Chism to stay after class to help him prepare for a test.