Could Privacy Laws Halt Murder Investigation?

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Knoxville (WVLT) - New developments in the unsolved murder case of Johnia Berry are raising new questions.

Knox County Sheriff's investigators have asked Peninsula, a local mental health services provider, where Johnia worked, to release the names of some male patients.

And that's raising both legal and ethical concerns.

The Knox County Sheriff's Office has obtained an investigative subpoena asking Peninsula to identify all men who were patients from October to December 2004, who could have left easily and returned to the hospital, a total of 108 patients.

Johnia Berry was stabbed to death in December of 2004.

Blood from an unidentified white man was found at the scene, but her killer's never been caught.

"We just have to basically make them understand that we wouldn't be there if it wasn't important. We're not trying to violate anyone's rights. We want to follow the law," Knox County Sherriff JJ Jones said.

Baptist Hospital Privacy Officer Brenda Ellis, who is not connected to this case, says the request is too broad to meet the requirements for exceptions. "Exactly, because, you know, the majority of people are not going to be the person you're looking for."

According to published reports, information from a forensic psychologist and FBI profiler suggests Berry's killer could be someone she'd met socially or professionally and who has mental health or substance abuse problems.

Berry's mother, Joan, has said Johnia worked at Peninsula assisting other staff members with patients.

"They actually are much stricter than what a regular hospital would be," Ellis said.

Peninsula continues to resist, out of concern for patient confidentiality.

Now, the Sheriff's Office has presented its case to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, in an effort to obtain those patients' names.

"So, when we ask to kind of bend the rules a little bit, we're there saying, look we need your help on this one. It's very important. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't important," Sheriff Jones said.

The three judge panel has not ruled.

The HIPAA privacy rule took effect April 14, 2003.

It establishes regulations for protected health information, including the health status, provision of health care, or payment for health care that can be linked to an individual.

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