Connecticut court bars release of arsenic killer's records

AP News
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Posted: Sep 14, 2015 5:13 PM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Records related to the mental hospital incarceration of a serial killer who inspired the play and 1944 movie "Arsenic and Old Lace" don't have to be made public, the state Supreme Court ruled in a decision released Monday.

A majority of five justices ruled that documents were exempt from disclosure requirements. A trial court had backed the state Freedom of Information Commission, which said Amy Archer Gilligan's privacy rights ended with her death in 1962 and invasion of privacy is not an issue.

The justices cited a "broad veil of secrecy created by the psychiatrist-patient privilege" to bar the disclosure under state law of medical and dental records created by an inpatient mental health facility during a patient's treatment. The ruling backs the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which cited federal law governing medical records to turn down requests for the records.

Two other justices issued a separate decision partly agreeing with the majority but also dissenting.

Author Ron Robillard in 2010 requested records about Gilligan's years in the psychiatric hospital, where she was confined after poisoning a resident of her nursing home with arsenic. He said last December he sought the records because Gilligan's perspective has not been told to the public.

Robillard said he was "obviously disappointed" by the ruling. He said his research has been on hold since he filed the request for documents and he's unsure what he'll do now.

The Freedom of Information Commission did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment on the ruling.

The movie, starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra, is a dark comedy about two eccentric sisters who poison lonely old men with arsenic-spiked wine. The men's bodies are buried in the basement by another family member, who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal.

Justice Andrew J. McDonald, citing an "enduring and legitimate public interest in the case of a notorious serial killer," voted with the majority but dissented in part. He was joined by Justice Richard N. Palmer.

McDonald criticized the Supreme Court's majority for failing to steer a course between policy developed by the legislature to protect confidential information between a patient and her psychiatrist in a therapeutic session and the presumption that all records held by a government agency are public unless a specific and narrow exception applies.

"Rather than charting a path that balances and accommodates both of these statutory priorities, the majority construes one to vanquish the other and, in the process, deviates significantly from critical principles at the core of open government," McDonald said.

The court's majority decided that "each and every one of the documents at issue — whether psychiatric, medical, dental, administrative or otherwise — must be shielded from the public, basing its decision primarily on where the documents were created, with almost no regard for their content," he wrote.

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This story corrects that the case was decided by a majority of justices and was not unanimous.