Connecticut court keeps 'Arsenic and Old Lace' records sealed

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 14, 2015 5:58 PM

By Richard Weizel

MILFORD, Conn. (Reuters) - All the medical records of the female serial killer who inspired the play and film "Arsenic and Old Lace" will remain sealed forever, Connecticut's Supreme Court ruled on Monday, rejecting a request to open some of them half a century after her death.

A Connecticut journalist planning a book on Amy Archer Gilligan, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1919 after admitting to poisoning one of her husbands as well as a resident of a nursing home where she worked by putting arsenic in their food, had requested the release of the documents.

Gilligan died in 1962 at age 93 in a state psychiatric hospital.

The journalist, Rob Robillard, had asked the court to order the release of all her records. The state's Freedom of Information Commission had asked for a compromise solution: releasing dental and medical records but keeping the psychiatric records private.

In a 5-2 vote, the court decided to release none of the documents, saying Connecticut's freedom of information law does not apply to medical records associated with a psychiatric facility.

"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.

In an opinion that dissented in part and agreed in part, two justices said the court had gone too far given that Gilligan is long dead and remains the subject of public interest, in part because she was suspected of killing at least three more people and perhaps dozens more with the same poison.

"The majority's resolution of this case yields a needless collision between two competing statutory mandates," Justices Andrew McDonald and Richard Palmer wrote. "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."

The state's Freedom of Information Commission expressed disappointment over the decision.

"We argue these are historical records, not medical records, and regardless of their content are subject to disclosure," said Colleen Murphy, the commission's executive director.

Gilligan's story inspired a 1941 stage play and a 1944 movie starring Cary Grant that was a fictional account of a man who learns his two maiden aunts like to kill old men and bury their remains in their basement.

(Reporting by Richard Weizel; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)