HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) – Public notoriety does not justify the release of a serial killer’s medical records, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled.
The decision published Tuesday reverses an order for Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to hand over 200 pages of psychiatric, medical and dental records related to Amy Archer Gilligan, widely considered to be the inspiration for the Joseph Kesselring play and Frank Capra film titled “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
After her conviction for poisoning the resident of a nursing home she ran in Windsor, Gilligan was held in a Connecticut-run psychiatric hospital from 1924 until she died in 1962.
Though tried on only one count, Gilligan was reportedly charged initially with five murders, including that of her second husband, and is believed to responsible for dozens others.
Ron Robillard, an East Hartford resident and author, had requested access to Gilligan’s medical records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Though the state’s Freedom of Information Commission saw a violation of public-records disclosure law in the denial of Robillard’s request, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed 5-2 today.
“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,” Justice Dennis Eveleigh wrote for the majority.
A 17-page partial dissent chides the court used the wrong framework to assess the records on a “notorious serial killer who was perhaps America’s deadliest murderess.”
“I recognize that one might ordinarily expect that records held by mental health treatment facilities would, as a general matter, not be subject to public records requests,” Justice Andrew McDonald wrote, joined by Justice Richard Palmer. “But, because the documents at issue here were created and are held by a public institution where Gilligan was committed after her conviction, they are subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”
Though the state cited psychiatric privilege in its appeal, McDonald said it is not clear, having reviewed the records in question, that the dental and medical records are related to Gilligan’s psychiatric care.
“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 only the order for the state to disclose certain of Gilligan’s medical records, saying the commission should reconsider the privileged status of these documents on remand.
The court heard oral arguments in the case 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 Hoell, who represented the department of mental health, 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.
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