Chism judge evicts press, public for 15 minutes

The judge in the Philip Chism murder trial kicked the press and the public out of his Salem courtroom for about 15 minutes this week to prevent the release of test questions used to determine whether someone is faking mental illness.

Chism is charged with the brutal murder and rape of his teacher Colleen Ritzer in October 2013. Chism concedes he killed Ritzer but claims he was suffering from a child psychosis at the time. A prosecution witness, neuropsychologist Nancy Hebben, testified Chism was trying to fake mental illness when he answered the questions.

Chism’s defense attorney said she wanted to ask Hebben about those questions, raising concerns that news reporting on them and how they are used would make them useless in testing future patients and possibly violate copyright restrictions.

Judge David Lowy offered to keep his courtroom open as long as news outlets agreed not to publish any information about the questions.The Salem News and its sister publication the Eagle-Tribune refused to comply with what they described in news reports as Lowy’s “gag order,” so the judge closed his courtroom to the public while Hebben was questioned. The Boston Globe, which is also covering the trial, did not report on whether it was willing to comply with the judge’s request.

According to the Salem News, Lowy said he was trying to “balance the right to write down 13 questions against the mental health needs of the entire country.”

Peter Caruso Sr., a lawyer for the Salem News and Eagle-Tribune, said the newspapers could not compromise on the First Amendment right to observe what goes on in the courtroom. “That principle cannot be compromised in any situation,” he said.

“The public should be outraged,” the two newspapers said in matching editorials. “The question of whether Chism is mentally ill is the heart of the case. It is unconscionable to bar the public from hearing testimony that bears directly on that question.”

The courtroom closing wasn’t the only problem Lowy has had with the press. He removed a pool television camera from the courtroom earlier in the trial after a photographer violated his instructions and showed the faces of two jurors.

Lowy was nominated for his judgeship in 1997 by former governor William Weld, whose chief of staff at the time was Virginia Buckingham, Lowy’s wife. Buckingham later went to work for the Boston Herald for four years as a deputy editorial page editor and a columnist, so Lowy probably knows quite a bit about the press.




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