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Amnesia and Criminal Competencies


Amnesia and Criminal Competencies Forensic Neuropsychology Marie Schroder June 8, 2006 Amnesia Conceptualized by neuropsychologists Profound deficit in acquisition ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Amnesia and Criminal Competencies

Amnesia and Criminal Competencies
  • Forensic Neuropsychology
  • Marie Schroder
  • June 8, 2006

  • Conceptualized by neuropsychologists
  • Profound deficit in acquisition, retention, or
  • Anterograde/ Retrograde
  • Amnesic syndrome
  • Anatomical substrate
  • MTL, Diencephalon, Basal Forebrain

Amnesia in the Legal System
  • General Misconception Amnesia is tantamount to
    having a bad memory
  • amnesia is simply the inability to remember
    (Thomas v. State, 1975)
  • amnesia is present to some degree in everyone
    (State v. Molnar, 1980)
  • Scientific basis may be misunderstood
  • in most cases of amnesia due to physical trauma,
    there is not only a loss of personal memory, but
    also an inability to recall acquired facts, and a
    loss or impairment of the power to use words
    (American Law Report, 1972)

Types of Amnesia
  • In the large majority of criminal cases, loss of
    memory either has a functional origin or concerns
    only a single critical event (Schacter, 1986)
  • Organic amnesia
  • Alcohol related
  • Head injury
  • Epilepsy
  • Functional amnesia
  • Dissociation
  • Fugue

Organic Amnesia
  • Alcohol related amnesia
  • Alcoholic blackout onset is abrupt and duration
    usually confined to a few hours
  • Long-term alcoholism resulting in chronic memory

Organic Amnesia
  • Epilepsy
  • Typically complex partial seizures
  • Automatism - behavior that is executed
    involuntarily without consciousness or intention

Organic Amnesia
  • Head injury sustain head injury in the course of
    the offense or subsequent to it
  • May suffer a retrograde amnesia for the act and
    prior events
  • May suffer anterograde amnesia

Functional Amnesia
  • Cannot be understood in terms of brain
  • Sudden inability to remember personal information
    (often restricted to incidents surrounding
    critical event)
  • Cause is thought to be one or more emotionally
    disturbing or traumatic events

Functional Amnesia
  • Dissociation
  • Dissociation at material time
  • Fugue dissociative state characterized by
    amnesia and physical flight from environment
    often assumption of new identity
  • Multiple Personality
  • Limited amnesia pathological forgetting of a
    specific episode
  • State dependent

What defendants are most likely to claim amnesia?
  • Amnesia is a common claim in those charged with
    homicide or other crimes of serious violence
  • estimates for amnesia for homicide range from
  • Taylor and Kopelman (1984) studied men remanded
    for violent and nonviolent offences
  • Amnesia claimed by nearly 10 of sample, all of
    whom committed crimes of violence
  • Amnesics had concomitant psychiatric disorder
    (e.g., depression, alcohol abuse,
  • Strong association between amnesia and offences
    in which victim was someone to whom the offender
    had been close

Criminal Competencies
  • Competency to confess
  • Competency to plead
  • Competency to waive right to counsel
  • Competency to stand trial
  • Competency to be sentenced
  • Competency to waive further appeal
  • Competency to be put to death

Competency to stand trial
  • Dusky v. U.S. (1960) emphasizes present ability
  • Amnesia should be considered in competency
  • Can a defendant establish a reasonable defense if
    he is amnestic for the offense?
  • General memory problems more likely to be
    probative for competency issues than amnesia for
  • Courts more receptive to temporary amnesia

Wilson v. U.S. (1968)
  • Federal Court of Appeals concluded that amnesia
    did not eliminate competency to stand trial.
    They enumerated 6 factors determining the effects
    of amnesia on competency
  • 1. The extent to which amnesia affected the
    defendants ability to consult with and assist
    his lawyer
  • 2. The extent to which the amnesia affected the
    defendants ability to testify in his own behalf

Wilson v. U.S. (1968)
  • 3. The extent to which evidence relating to the
    crime itself or to any reasonably possible alibi
    could be reconstructed from sources other than
    the defendants memory
  • 4. The extent to which the government assisted
    the defendant and his counsel in that
  • 5. The strength of the prosecutors case, i.e.,
    whether the case was strong enough to negate all
    reasonable hypotheses of innocence
  • 6. Any other facts and circumstances that would
    indicate whether the defendant had a fair trial

Case Example
  • People v. Palmer (2000)
  • Possession of large quantity of marijuana
  • Subsequent on-the-job accident resulting in
    multiple skull fractures
  • Claimed amnesia for event leading to charges
    claim accepted by court appointed evaluator
  • Was he incompetent to stand trial because he was
    unable to assist in his defense, as counsel
  • NO Understanding of proceedings present Found
    competent to stand trial and convicted

Other criminal issues
  • Actus Reus
  • Excludes automatism Courts have generally found
    that individuals are not criminally responsible
    for acts committed during an epileptic seizure
  • Mens Rea
  • Amnesia does not affect responsibility for
    actions, unless person additionally falls under
    insanity standard
  • disease of mind argument successful in some
    cases of amnesia due to long-term alcoholism
  • Diminished Capacity
  • Amnesia may preclude specific state of mind for
    crime charged (e.g., manslaughter rather than 1st
    degree murder)

Malingering? Amnesia can be feigned
  • Evaluating legitimacy
  • Defendants behavior
  • Nature of memory loss (onset, consistency)
  • Interview procedures
  • Psychophysiological
  • Objective tests
  • Symptom validity test

  • Legal system needs education about amnesia
  • Courts have generally ruled that amnesia is not
    sufficient to establish incompetency to stand
  • Skepticism regarding genuineness of claims of
  • Courts beginning to ask questions of
    psychologists regarding the effects of amnesia
    and the possibility of feigning memory loss

Denney, R. L. (2005). Criminal forensic
neuropsychology and assessment of competency. In
G. J. Larrabee (Ed.), Forensic Neuropsychology A
Scientific Approach (pp. 378-424). New York
Oxford University Press. Denney, R. L.,
Wynkoop, T. F. (2000). Clinical neuropsychology
in the criminal forensic setting. Journal of
Head Trauma Rehabilitation, 15, 804-828.
  Howard, C. (1990). Amnesia. In R. Bulglass
P. Bowden (Eds.), Principles and Practice of
Forensic Psychiatry (pp. 291-298). London
Churchhill Livingstone.   Melton, G. B., Petrila,
J., Poythress, N. G., Slobogin, C. (Eds.).
(1997). Psychological evaluations for the
courts A handbook for mental health
professionals and lawyers (2nd Ed.). New York
The Guilford Press.   Miller, R. D. (2003).
People v. Palmer Amnesia and competency to
proceed revisited. The Journal of Psychiatry
Law, 31, 165-185.   Rubinsky, E. W., Brandt,
J. (1986). Amnesia and criminal law A clinical
overview. Behavioral Sciences the Law, 4,
27-46.   Schacter, D. L. (1986). Amnesia and
crime How much do we really know? American
Psychologist, 41, 286-295.   Taylor, P. J.,
Kopelman, M. D. (1984). Amnesia for criminal
offences. Psychological Medicine, 14, 581-588.