Local News

Attorney Ordered To Divulge Information About Eric Miller Case

Posted August 22, 2003 5:16 a.m. EDT

— The State Supreme Court has ruled that a lawyer must reveal to the court what his deceased client may have known about the death of Eric Miller.

The court ruled that Raleigh attorney Richard Gammon must reveal conversations he had with Derril Willard Jr. before Willard's suicide, to determine whether Gammon should be compelled to discuss it with police.

Willard killed himself after police began investigating the poisoning of Miller, with whose wife, Ann, police said Willard was having an affair. Gammon had discussed the case with Willard several times before he committed suicide.

At issue was whether the conversations between Willard and Gammon are covered by attorney-client privilege even though Willard is dead.

The Supreme Court said Willard's death did not mean his privileged conversations with his lawyer should not be disclosed. But it said a trial court judge has the authority to determine whether some or all of their conversations were not covered by the doctrine, which allows attorneys and their clients to keep conversations private.

District Attorney Colon Willoughby calls the decision a victory for truth.

"After two and a half-long years, we may finally get to the truth of what happened and it may help us solve this case," he said.

The opinion noted that Willard could have implicated another person without implicating himself, and that any such conversation would not be privileged.

"When application of the privilege will no longer safeguard the client's interests, no reason exists in support of perpetual nondisclosure," Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. wrote for the court.

But Lake also said the courts have a duty to defend attorney-client privilege even after death.

"Knowing that communications will remain confidential even after death encourages the client to communicate fully and frankly with counsel," he wrote.

Miller, a 30-year-old pediatric AIDS researcher, died Dec. 2, 2000, of arsenic poisoning. No one has been arrested or charged in the case.

Investigators said Miller first became ill after a Nov. 15 bowling outing with several of his wife's co-workers. One of them was Willard, 37, who served Miller a beer that Miller said tasted funny, according to a brief filed with the state Supreme Court.

That night, Miller developed symptoms of the flu and was hospitalized. Blood tests later showed he had ingested arsenic.

Miller was released from the hospital Nov. 24. Six days later, according to police affidavits, he became violently ill again after eating a meal his wife prepared. New blood tests before his death showed high arsenic levels.

Police have said Miller's wife was having an affair with Willard, who committed suicide in January 2001. Willard and Ann Miller shared a lab at GlaxoSmithKline, and both had access to an arsenic compound.

In March, Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens ordered Gammon to provide information to the judge about his conversations about Miller's death. The judge wanted to read Gammon's affidavit in private and determine whether it is critical enough to give to authorities.

The ruling orders Gammon to tell Judge Donald Stephens about his conversations with Willard. Stephens will decide whether to share any information with prosecutors. Gammon could appeal, or he could refuse to talk -- an option he has not ruled out.