The public notoriety of a multiple murderer justifies the release of her medical records more than 50 years after her death, a lawyer for the Freedom of Information Commission argued Wednesday before the state Supreme Court.
The case is based on a request for the medical records of Amy Archer Gilligan, a serial murderer whose story was widely-publicized and became the basis for the dark comedic film “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
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.
Her records come before the Supreme Court as a result of a complaint by Ron Robillard, an East Hartford resident who claims the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services violated the public records disclosure law by denying his request for Gilligan’s records.
The Freedom of Information Commission ordered Gilligan’s physical and dental records released however a trial court agreed with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, saying the records should be kept confidential.
During oral arguments Wednesday, 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.”
Justices questioned Harmon over how they should define a public figure and whether someone’s public figure status fades with the passage of time. Sometimes people are given public status for seemingly arbitrary reasons, such as a writer’s decision to give them exposure, Justice Andrew McDonald said pointing to Truman Capote’s widely read true crime novel “In Cold Blood.”
“That can’t be the test, that because somebody has drawn attention to their actions they’re automatically morphed into a public figure when there are anonymous, so to speak, people who are committing crimes all the time,” he said.
Harmon acknowledged it was difficult to craft a test to define a public figure, but said Gilligan’s case captivated the public’s attention.
“It seems to me you have to evaluate the facts and circumstance to see what gave rise to the public attention. In this case, it was a serial arsenic murderess who [was] tried and convicted and retried and sentenced to hang and—so the events were large,” she said.
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.
McDonald seemed skeptical that it could be appropriate to question the motivations of the person requesting the record.
Harmon asked the court to look at the case as a unique instance and said it should not be read to apply broadly to other people at state-run hospitals.
“This is a very specific case. We’re not talking about everyone in a state facility. We’re talking about a public figure,” she said. “We’re not saying that this decision today means that everybody’s records at [Connecticut Valley Hospital] are going to be disclosed. This is a special case.”
The justices did not set a time frame Wednesday for a decision.