Supreme Court Finds Records of Arsenic Murderess Should Be Confidential
The public notoriety of a multiple murderer doesn’t justify the release of her medical records, the Connecticut Supreme Court decided Monday.
In the majority opinion, five Connecticut Supreme Court justices found that the trial court should not hand over 200 pages of psychiatric, medical, and dental records related to Amy Archer Gilligan, a serial murderer whose story was widely-publicized and became the basis for the dark comedic film, Arsenic and Old Lace.
“We conclude that the trial court improperly affirmed the commission’s determination that Gilligan’s medical and dental records were not exempt,” Justice Dennis Eveleigh wrote in the majority decision.
The decision was largely based on the court’s interpretation of privilege between a psychiatrist and their patient.
“Our understanding of the broad veil of secrecy created by the psychiatrist-patient privilege also supports our conclusion that medical and dental records that are created by an inpatient mental health facility during the treatment of a patient are exempt,” Eveleigh wrote.
Gilligan was found guilty of poisoning her husband and a resident of a nursing home she operated and was believed to have poisoned more with arsenic. Gilligan was held in a state-run psychiatric hospital from 1924 until she died in 1962.
Ron Robillard, an East Hartford resident and author, filed a Freedom of Information complaint against the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which denied him access to the records. Robillard claimed the state violated its public records disclosure law by denying his request for Gilligan’s records. The lower court agreed with Robillard, but DMHAS appealed the decision.
Most of the justices sided with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, but Justices Andrew McDonald and Richard Palmer dissented in part with how their colleagues interpreted Connecticut’s Freedom of Information law. McDonald wrote in his concurrence that there should be a presumption that all records are public and the burden to prove they aren’t falls to the state agency.
In this case, McDonald, who has seen the records, said it’s not clear that the dental and medical records are related to the psychiatric care of Gilligan. The department claimed psychiatric privilege in its appeal.
“In my view, the law is more nuanced than the department allows,” McDonald wrote. “It is possible, but unclear from the face of the documents, that the medical and dental records may relate to Gilligan’s psychiatric treatment.”
He said he would reverse in part the commission’s decision that all of the documents at issue must be released and turn the case back to the lower court for further consideration of the medical and dental records.
Oral arguments in the case were heard in January.
Valicia Dee Harmon, an attorney for the commission, argued that the public has a valid interest in Gilligan’s records because she was a public figure. She said the state should apply a federal policy calling for the disclosure of personal records after the death of a person and the passage of 50 years.
“For a public figure like Teddy Roosevelt or Amy Archer Gilligan, the passage of time really makes the status of that record a reflection of history,” Harmon said. “What we’re asking the court to recognize is the combination of her public figure status combined with the passage of 50 years. The fact of the matter is that these records are between 91 and 50 years old.”
Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline S. Hoell, who represented DMHAS, argued that disclosing Gilligan’s records would set a dangerous precedent that may discourage people from seeking psychiatric help at state-run facilities.
“The impact that this would have on a patient’s ability to be open and frank with their mental health providers is really important,” she said. “For example a woman may not want to disclose to her psychiatrist that she had an abortion in the past and that’s causing her depression or she may not want to give her psychiatrist access to past medical records . . . if she knows that these may become subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”
Hoell rejected the idea that Gilligan’s health care records should be treated differently based on public interest in her infamous crimes.
“Legitimate public concern — it’s not equivalent to curiosity and that’s essentially what we have in this case,” she said.