Privacy Act slows therapist murder investigation

February 15, 2008 7:52:47 PM PST
The investigation into the ferocious stabbing of a Manhattan psychologist has been slowed because detectives are barred by privacy laws from reviewing the slain therapist's patient records without a court order, police said Friday. The killer slashed 56-year-old Kathryn Faughey 15 times with a meat cleaver and a 9-inch knife in her office Tuesday evening. A psychiatrist who worked in the building, Dr. Kent Shinbach, came to Faughey's rescue and was badly injured.

Detectives were trying to determine whether the killer was a patient of Faughey or Shinbach, but have been unable to access medical records because of state and federal privacy laws. The killer told the office doorman he was there to see Shinbach, but the psychiatrist didn't recognize him, police said.

As the district attorney's office worked with police to get patient information, investigators searched for evidence, removing nine boxes from Faughey's office, scrutinizing security cameras footage and following up on tips made to a hot line.

"There's a lot of forensic evidence, a lot of analysis that has to be done, and that's all going forward," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. "A lot of processing going on now as we speak, but we have not gotten anything back."

Kelly said the department and the district attorney's office were working to petition the courts to get the information in the patient records, which are protected under federal and state confidentiality laws. Kelly wasn't sure how long the effort would take.

"This is certainly not the first time where the issue of privacy comes up against concerns and requirements as seen by law enforcement," Kelly said. "We're trying to address this through court order."

The district attorney's office said it's already obtained some patient information, but was working to get more, spokeswoman Barbara Thompson said, declining to comment further.

Authorities have to prove in court that they have a legitimate cause to obtain the patient information.

HIPAA laws, which went into effect in 2003, provide a floor for patient confidentiality, but if state laws are more strict, as is the case in New York, then state laws are followed, legal experts said. The laws are particularly strict in terms of psychologists' records.

David Truemen, a psychologist and professor of health law at Columbia University, said laws allow police to get information about specific patients. But without a suspect's name - as in this case - it would be difficult to gain access to multiple records.

"They can't do a fishing expedition," he said. "If they show probable cause, they can get records of individuals, but they can't just go get a list of patients and all their information."

Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it was a predictable clash. "Law enforcement would like to have as much access as possible, at all times."

Shinbach's assistant has been working with police to contact patients, mostly to ensure they were safe, Kelly said. Information was also being provided by Faughey's husband.

William Kunsman, a friend of Faughey's in Pennsylvania, was interviewed by detectives Thursday. Faughey had offered to help him with personal problems and spoke with him the day she was killed, but he is not considered a suspect, police said.

Police shed more light Friday on events leading up to the stabbing, saying the killer sat in Shinbach's waiting room with a patient for nearly a half hour before the attack. After the patient went into Shinbach's office around 8:30 p.m., the killer entered Faughey's office and attacked her.

Shinbach came to her aid, but was assaulted and robbed by the killer, who then tried to force Shinbach's patient into a bathroom.

She fended him off and he left the building at around 9 p.m.

The suspect left two bags near the basement door through which he escaped. The bags were filled with adult diapers, women's clothing, rope, duct tape and eight knives, police said.

Shinbach was taken to New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center with slash wounds on his head, face and hands. The hospital declined to release any information about Shinbach on Friday; police said they thought he was in serious but stable condition.