Published: January 25, 2015 | Last Modified: January 25, 2015 01:01AM
That’s the question now before the Connecticut Supreme Court in the case of Amy Archer-Gilligan, who pleaded guilty to poisoning her husband as well as a client of her Windsor nursing home by putting arsenic in their food. She was also suspected of killing at least three other victims, possibly dozens more, by the same method.
East Hartford author Ron Robillard has filed a freedom of information request with the state Department of Mental Health Services, seeking Archer-Gilligan’s psychiatric and medical records for a book he is writing. Those records could shed light on how this state treated the mentally ill during the 38 years between 1924 and 1962 at what is now Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown.
In general, such records are protected by law, including the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but the Freedom of Information Commission ordered Archer-Gilligan’s records released, arguing that a federal policy also calls for the disclosure of personal records 50 years after the death of a person, and that condition has been satisfied in this case. The FOIC says that the public has a valid interest in these records because she was a public figure.
Which may seem odd to most of us, who don’t recognize her name. What we do recognize, though, is the name of the play, and subsequent Hollywood movie, that are widely believed to be loosely based on her story: “Arsenic and Old Lace.” So one thing the court will have to decide is whether the activities of the elderly Brewster sisters in that play — basically, poisoning the guests at their home for the elderly and burying them in the basement — makes Amy Archer-Gilligan a public figure.
Clearly she was not the Brewster sisters; they are fictional characters invented by playwright Joseph Kesselring in the 1930s. But it is widely believed that Archer-Gilligan provided the model for the play’s characters and plot.
The court may also have to decide whether a person’s right to privacy of medical records extends beyond death. Arguments that it does include the simple point that privacy is privacy, and that’s that.
Assistant Attorney General Jacqueline Hoell argued that the more than 200 pages are privileged psychiatric records and should remain sealed, just as they would be for any other patient in the state.
Hoell argued that disclosing Archer-Gilligan’s records would set a dangerous precedent that might discourage people from seeking psychiatric help, and she cited a difference between “legitimate public concern” and mere curiosity.
Arguments that privacy isn’t necessarily forever include the idea that there’s a historical imperative to sometimes investigate the past in order to make a better future; that taking a hard look at possible past abuses could prevent their recurrence and is therefore a good thing. Valicia Harmon, the commission’s attorney, told the Supreme Court justices that there is still plenty of public interest in Archer-Gilligan and that her medical records would provide a snapshot into the treatment given in the past.
Does public attention make you a public figure? Probably. Should Archer-Gilligan lose her privacy because she was an infamous figure and was sentenced to hang before being committed to a mental hospital, and then had a play written about her? Probably — but we’ll have to await the court’s decision.