Local News

N.C. Supreme Court Hears Arguments About Attorney-Client Privilege In Arsenic Case

Posted October 15, 2002 5:24 a.m. EDT

— Attorneys argued before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday about whether a lawyer should be forced to provide information about an arsenic death that his client gave him before committing suicide.

Lawyers for the attorney, Richard Gammon of Raleigh, argued that forcing Gammon to release the information he learned from Derril H. Willard Jr. would set a dangerous precedent that would erode the relationship that lawyers have with clients.

"Derril Willard availed himself of our system of justice. We urge this court to ensure this system of justice does not fail Derril Willard," said David Long, Gammon's attorney.

Willard committed suicide last year as Raleigh police investigated the arsenic poisoning death of Eric Miller, 30, of Raleigh, a pediatric AIDS researcher.

A trial judge earlier this year ordered Gammon to tell investigators what Willard had told him about Miller's death. Gammon appealed, citing attorney-client privilege.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the Miller case was an extraordinary situation, but that ordering Gammon to disclose conversations could forward the interest of justice. Willoughby asked the justices to direct a trial judge to conduct a private review of what Gammon knows.

"This is the court of last resort and this is where we go for an answer," Willoughby said.

The state also argued that Willard's wife, Yvette, as executor of her late husband's estate has the right to waive the privilege.

"I'm not someone that wants to come forward with what's happened to me personally and that's why I would rather the attorneys do their thing. When it comes to my turn to talk, I'll talk," Yvette said. "This is just hard. I want it over for the sake of my daughter."

Gammon represented Willard when Willard killed himself in January 2001. Investigators say Willard, 37, and Eric Miller's wife, Ann, 31, were having an affair, and they want to know what Willard may have told Gammon about Eric Miller's death.

The state Supreme Court has never ruled on the kind of attorney-client privilege dilemma at issue in Gammon's case. The court considers the matter so important that it agreed to take the case on appeal directly from the trial court, bypassing the state Court of Appeals.

"I have all of the confidence in the world that they will do the right thing and that justice will prevail," said Doris Miller, Eric Miller's mother.

Miller died Dec. 2, 2000, after weeks of illness that an autopsy attributed to arsenic poisoning. Investigators say the first night Miller became ill, Willard bought and poured a beer for Miller, who later complained that it tasted bitter.

They say Ann Miller prepared a meal for her husband the night he became sick for the last time before he died. Police are investigating Miller's death as a homicide but haven't charged anyone.

Willard shot himself before talking to investigators. He left a suicide note denying he killed Eric Miller, according to the Wake sheriff's office.

Yvette Willard told investigators that her husband had told her that Gammon had advised him he could be charged with attempted murder.

The court did not rule Tuesday and is not expected to rule for many months.