The town of Danvers and a cleaning company employed by the school department had previously been excluded from the lawsuit. Tuesday’s hearing was on DiNisco Design’s motion for summary judgment to have a judge, not a jury, decide the case.
The cameras were working on the afternoon of Oct. 22, 2013, and could have been monitored live if Danvers school officials had assigned someone to monitor them, but no one was watching at the time, said the attorney for DiNisco, Katherine L. Kenney.
Video from the system was used extensively during the 2015 trial of Philip D. Chism, who was convicted of first-degree murder, Kenney said. Video released during the trial captured Chism, then 14, following Ritzer, 24, into the girls’ bathroom after school. He exited a few minutes later, but returned with a recycling cart, then exited one last time.
Chism raped and murdered Ritzer using a box cutter inside the bathroom, then put his body in the recycling cart. He then dragged the recycling cart into the woods behind the school, where Ritzer’s body was found hours later.
He was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for parole after 40 years. Ritzer’s murder was one of the worst cases of school violence in state history.
However, “there is no doubt that this system was not functional and was not operational on the day of the attack on Ms. Ritzer,” said Daniel Murphy, an attorney for Ritzer’s parents.
The school’s resource manager at the time, Sergeant Stephen Baldassare had to use a paper map key to determine which camera feeds showed which part of the school and that the videos would freeze or freeze when he took them down on the evening of October 22, Murphy said, reading precedents. testimony from former Danvers Police Chief Patrick Ambrose. It took Baldassare four days after the attack to piece together the video that the Essex District Attorney’s Office eventually used as evidence against Chism, he said.
Murphy read emails previously seized by school officials and DiNisco executives from nearly a year before the Ritzer attack, which detailed the school’s struggles with its new surveillance system.
An IT worker at Danvers High School first informed then-vice principal Keith Taverna of problems with the camera system in November 2012, according to emails read by Murphy.
One vendor wrote in an email in late 2012 that they had “never seen worse software” and that patching attempts were “like putting lipstick on a pig”, according to Murphy.
In September 2013, Taverna wrote in an email that the camera system was “completely down” and that “it’s obviously very important to building security,” Murphy read. A temporary workaround was developed, but Murphy said it wasn’t implemented until November.
The software was too new and Danvers High School’s computers too old to handle it, Murphy said.
“The software product chosen by the design team was never going to integrate properly with Danvers High School’s hardware,” he said.
If the cameras had been working properly, someone might have stepped in to arrest Chism, Murphy said.
Kenny, DiNisco’s attorney countered the claims, saying that while there were issues with the cameras, no one was assigned to monitor the live stream for the duration of the events. No one would have seen what was happening in time to intervene, she said. Even though someone had seen the live video, Kenney said the medical examiner determined that the injuries inflicted on Ritzer in the school bathroom were fatal.
Murphy read an expert’s affidavit claiming that there should have been alerts sent by the system. Kenney maintained that there was no discussion of these alerts in the trial transcripts.
Judge John Lu did not issue a dismissal decision on Tuesday.
The city last month attempted to close Tuesday’s hearing to the public, arguing it would endanger school safety, but Lu denied the request, as The Salem News first reported.
Peggie and Tom Ritzer sat quietly in the back of the courtroom on Tuesday and refused to speak to a reporter after the hearing.
The Ritzers just want to do “everything they can” to promote school safety, Murphy told reporters on the courthouse steps. The lengthy legal battles have been “difficult” for the Ritzers, Murphy said. “I can’t imagine being in their place.”
Alexander Thompson can be contacted at [email protected]