Jun. 29th, 2007
George Dexter Robinson Blue Flo Plate of Gov. Robinson
3X Governor of Mass. private collection of Faye Musselman
Headed Lizzie’s defense team On loan to Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast
from South Coast Today April 14, 1998
“By Paul Edward Parker, Providence Journal-Bulletin
FALL RIVER — In a locked storage room on the 16th floor of a high-rise office building in Springfield, a five-drawer file cabinet may hold the secrets of Fall River’s most enduring mystery: Who killed Andrew and Abby Borden. Only one man has the key to that locked filing cabinet, an administrator in the law firm that, more than a century ago, represented Lizzie Borden when she was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother. Since June 1893, the papers inside that filing cabinet have remained a secret between Lizzie and her lawyer, former Gov. George D. Robinson. But all that may soon change.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case involving former White House aide Vincent W. Foster, who committed suicide in 1993. Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr has demanded to see notes of a conversation between Foster and his lawyer just days before the suicide. The high court will hear oral arguments in that case on June 8, with a decision expected in late June or early July. The court will decide whether attorney-client privilege, which protects the secrecy of the relationship between lawyers and their clients, continues after the client dies. It is the attorney-client privilege that has kept the Robinson papers out of the public eye for 105 years. Though Lizzie is long gone, her lawyer lives on, in the form of Robinson, Donovan, Madden & Barry, the law firm that succeeded Governor Robinson’s firm.
The Supreme Court’s pending ruling opens a tantalizing possibility to historians and Borden buffs. “Would we like to look at Robinson’s papers? Absolutely, of course,” said George E. Quigley, president of The International Lizzie Borden Association.
Said Michael Martins, curator of the Fall River Historical Society: “Any documents that pertain to a case as notorious as the Borden case, a great unsolved murder mystery, would be of tremendous interest to researchers and scholars.” The historical society is home to the largest collection of Borden material, including the papers of prosecutor Hosea M. Knowlton and City Marshal Rufus B. Hilliard, Fall River’s police chief at the time of the murders. “I’m sure it’s an interesting collection,” Martins said of the Robinson papers, “but I doubt there’s anything that’s going to prove the case.”
The types of documents in the collection are as mysterious as what they might say.
Bruce Lyon, administrator at the Robinson firm, said the collection includes newspaper clippings and other materials that were publicly available. It also includes a lot more material, he said, all of which is privileged.
Around the time of the 100th anniversary of the murders, in 1992, the firm consulted with the Board of Bar Overseers, the agency that oversees the conduct of lawyers. The board informally advised that not only does the attorney-client privilege bar the firm from releasing the papers, it prevents the firm from disclosing the nature of what it holds. Lyon said the Robinson papers have been catalogued and placed in protective document holders, but he could not say anything more.
Speculation is that the files might contain letters between Lizzie and Robinson; letters between Robinson and other lawyers involved in the case; Robinson’s notes, both strategic preparations and documenting how the trial progressed; and other documents relating to testimony at the trial and preliminary proceedings.
Few expect to find anything directly incriminating Lizzie, such as a signed confession. But the papers may hold bits of information that may have seemed inconsequential at the time that, viewed with a modern understanding of the case, might bolster one or more theories of the crime.
“Some things in there might be historical,” Quigley said. “There might be statements in there that might be damning or might be helpful to her. There would be notes that Robinson wrote about the case that would be telling. Who knows.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling will probably only deal with whether lawyers can be ordered to divulge material relating to dead clients. A ruling paving the way for release of the papers would only be the first step to their becoming public. If the Robinson papers became publicly available and the law firm wanted to lend or donate them to the historical society, Martins would be happy to accept them, but added, “we wouldn’t go after them.”
Martins said the society, in such a case, would probably seek to publish the papers, a painstaking process involving years of transcribing handwritten notes. The society published prosecutor Knowlton’s papers in 1994, and has been preparing the roughly 600 documents in Hilliard’s papers, which are still several years from publication. Despite the keen historical interest in the material, even Martins and Quigley are hesitant to advocate that the Supreme Court extinguish the attorney-client privilege upon a client’s death.
Quigley noted that Foster has living relatives, who could be hurt by the release of confidential material. “Lizzie, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “She’s dead. She’s dead a long time.”
Martins thinks the privilege should be extended even to the long-dead accused ax murderess. “Personally, I think Lizzie Borden bought and paid for her defense,” he said. “Isn’t it important that they protect the documents of their former clients? I think it’s important that they do that.”
The Supreme Court, using the case of Vincent Foster, ruled that lawyers must still maintain the attorney-client privilege, even when the client is dead. Personally, I can see the merits of this with regards to private correspondence. But the firm most likely has what remains the only surviving copy of Bridget Sullivan’s Inquest Testimony. Testimony from all others called by District Attorney Knowlton has long since been made public via the “Jennings hip bath collection” sold by the Fall River Historical Society. The Inquest was a legal proceeding and if this firm does have Bridget’s testimony, it surely is not “material between lawyers and their client” and, IMHO, should be released and made public.
About 5 years ago I sent an email to attorney Jeffrey McCormick (no longer with the firm) following up on Jules Ryckebusch’s earlier plea in 1992 to release the files. I received a prompt and courteous email response citing their standard reply as indicated above.
The firm has evolved and grown, now known as Robinson Donovan P.C. Check out their website: http://www.robinson-donovan.com/index.epl