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A Public Death: Reporters Set Emotions Aside for Public Records Protections

A Public Death: Reporters Set Emotions Aside for Public Records Protections

Picture of William Heisel
Access to death records helps the living.
Access to death records helps the living.

When I read that state legislators in Connecticut were planning on banning access to death certificates in reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting, I started writing a post for my A Public Death series.

A handful of you might remember my main thesis: We should be free to lead private lives – for the most part – but once we die, we should be happy to have our death records become part of the public record. It’s good for scientific research. It’s good for genealogical research. It’s good for journalism, too.

Then I shelved the post. How can you write anything about something as horrible as those killings without your point being lost in the emotions of the aftermath?

So I salute the Hartford Courant for finding a way to write sensibly about a piece of bad public policy. In two recent pieces of commentary, the Courant has made great arguments for keeping death records public. Ron Robillard wrote “Death Certificates Key to Arsenic Murders.”

Highly specific, yes. But also a perfect example of why these records are useful.

Robillard focused on one of the early crime scandals that captured the public imagination: the conviction of Amy Archer Gilligan on charges she poisoned more than 20 patients at the nursing home she ran. The case inspired the play and later the movie “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Robillard, who is writing a book about Gilligan, wrote how Clifford Sherman, editor of the Hartford Courant, tasked one of his reporters with following up on a tip that a man had been poisoned at the Archer Home for the Aged and Infirm. Importantly, the tip came from a woman who suspected her brother had been murdered and whose pleas had been ignored by the state’s attorney:

The reporter, Aubrey Maddock, meticulously went through nearly five years of death certificates, weeding out the records of every person who had died at Gilligan's home during that period. Maddock then went to Hartford City Hall, where he examined the death certificates of those who had died while in the care of that city's larger Jefferson Home during the same five years. Back at the office, Maddock and Sherman created a primitive spreadsheet on a piece of newsprint.

What a wonderful journalism artifact that would be to have. Maddock and Sherman compared the small nursing home run by Gillian to a bigger nursing home, the Jefferson Home.

The numbers were startling. During the previous five years, Gilligan’s home experienced, on average, 12 deaths a year, a number equal to her average census. The much larger Jefferson Home, which housed about 85 patients at any time, also averaged about 12 deaths per year — or about one per seven patients. Sherman then sent his men to examine the "poison registers" each druggist was required to maintain — and which the law required be made public. At one of the two drug stores in Windsor, the reporters discovered Archer had bought two pounds of arsenic, an astounding amount given that a fatal dose for an adult is generally considered to be two to three grains — about 0.0091429 of an ounce. While it was not the sort of proof needed to prove a crime, the numbers were disturbing.

Now the official agencies charged with protecting the public could no longer ignore their duties.

The Courant's editors brought their findings to Gov. Marcus Holcomb, who ordered a state police investigation. The police confirmed all The Courant's findings, and the bodies of five former patients were autopsied. All had been poisoned, according to the toxicologist.

Robillard then brought the point home:

The lesson here is simple and obvious: Without open access to public documents, Gilligan may have eluded detection and punishment. This is important, because the two bills in the legislature are in response to Newtown Town Clerk Debbie A. Aurelia, who was upset by what she considered the unseemly search for facts by the news media after the deadly school shooting in her town. … One proposal would make available only a short form of the current death certificate. The other would seal the death certificates of those under 18 for six months. These are understandable responses to the Sandy Hook massacre. But they are unnecessary and harmful in the long run. Even state Chief Medical Examiner Wayne Carver testified against changing the current law. "When an individual dies and the reason is not known, speculation and misinformation abound," Carver testified.

The Courant’s editorial board then underscored these points with an editorial titled “Democrats Pulling Shades Down on Government Business.” The board wrote:

Death certificates are not intrusive. Denying the public access to them will not assuage grief. And information gathered from these public records can serve an important public purpose such as helping to solve crimes or blunt epidemics. As one of the few Democrats who got it right, Rep. Peter Tercyak told committee members who were about to vote on restricting access to death certificates, “This is dangerous stuff, folks — we shouldn't do it. This is not open government.”

The editorial ended with a stark warning:

How do such insults to good government happen? It happens when a ruling party — in this case Connecticut’s Democrats — gets too settled, too comfortable and finds it easy to stretch the boundaries too far. Its priority becomes convenience for those who rule and to hell with the governed. It takes a "we know better than you" attitude. It's bound to catch up with them.

I’m not so optimistic that bad decisions now will catch up with any of the decision-makers. That’s why it’s important for people to pay attention now and speak out if they want to keep valuable public records from being declared off limits.

Image by CharlesFred via Flickr

Comments

Picture of Robert Oshel

Your argument concerning death certificates is equally applicable to the malpractice payment reports, clinical privileges disciplinary action reports, licensure disciplinary reports, etc., in the National Practitioner Data Bank.  Making this information public would help protect the public from dangerous practitioners.  Unfortunately opening the Data Bank will require Congressional action, which is likely to be difficult to obtain.

Your arguments are also applicable to confidentiality agreements and sealed court records in malpractice settlements. These agreements and sealed records should be prohibited by law as contrary to the public interest.  Even without new law Judges should refuse to accept settlements with confidentiality provisions as unethical.  

Robert E. Oshel, Ph.D.
Retired Associate Director for Research and Disputes, National Practitioner Data Bank

Picture of William Heisel

Bob,

I have encouraged reporters in the past to use the NPD, even with its restrictions, for stories to show the value of these types of records. If there were more stories that highlighted gaps in patient protections in particular I think we might eventually start to see some movement. But, I agree, the process would be difficult. On the malpractice settlements, those to should be a matter of public record, although, as you know, attorneys like to have that secrecy element as a bargaining chip. So in one case you're talking about the very strong physicians lobby and in the other the attorneys. Tough opponents? You bet.

Picture of <span class="username">Guest (not verified)</span>

So much criminality is protected. The government's mission is to protect it's citizens. Right?

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