Commonly depicted in legal dramas and crime-solving shows and movies, the attorney-client privilege gained attention last week, based on a decision by the Georgia Supreme Court. In the case Neuman v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court reaffirmed the importance of the attorney-client privilege when it overturned the murder conviction of Hemy Neuman, the man convicted of killing Russell Sneiderman in 2010 at the Dunwoody Prep Daycare. Dubbed the “Dunwoody Day Care Murderer,” Mr. Neuman claimed insanity drove him to dress in a bearded disguise and kill Mr. Sneiderman, who had just dropped his son off at the daycare.
The Supreme Court’s decision stemmed from the trial judge’s admission of the notes and records made by two mental health experts, who conducted pre-trial psychological examinations of Mr. Neuman at the request of the defense attorneys. Because the defense attorneys needed the mental health experts’ compilations in order to determine whether the insanity defense was viable, the Supreme Court deemed this evidence should have been kept confidential.
Attorney-client privilege was applicable in this case because the attorneys hired the mental health experts. These experts examined Mr. Neuman on behalf of his attorneys and submitted their notes and recordings to those attorneys. Thus, the notes and recordings of the mental health experts fell under the attorney-client privilege. Conversely, because the evaluations were not done for medical treatment purposes, the doctor-patient privilege was not an issue here.
The attorney-client privilege may be better understood by watching classic legal dramas, such as Perry Mason and Matlock. The “attorneys” on these dramas frequently used investigators to question witnesses and examine crime scenes in order to help the attorney better understand the facts of the case. As long as the information gathered was used to help the attorney, then the investigators’ findings would be confidential under the attorney-client privilege. Ultimately, attorney communications are protected whether they are with an investigator, mental health expert, or other professional, as long as that person is helping the attorney collect information to build the case.
In Neuman v. State, the defense attorneys hired the mental health experts to determine the mental state of their client; thereby allowing them devise a valid strategy as to how to proceed in representing their client.
The attorney-client privilege is essential to our legal system and the attorney’s ability to effectively represent their client.