SAN FRANCISCO — Many defendants charged with a felony said they could not remember the crime for which they were tried, according to new study results presented here. However, claiming amnesia rarely impacted their competency to stand trial.
In 1968, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that amnesia at the time of a crime did not per se render a defendant incompetent to stand trial (Wilson v. United States).
Susan Hatters-Friedman, MD, John Preston Shand, MD, and colleagues from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine sorted through thousands of court cases from the Cuyahoga County court clinic in Cleveland to study the mental health status and legal circumstances of defendants who had claimed amnesia. The researchers included 147 cases in their final analysis, and they used sanity and competency reports if the defendant claimed amnesia for any part of the crime.
Results indicated that 77% of the defendants who claimed amnesia faced charges for violent crimes. According to the researchers, 40% claimed full amnesia, 20% claimed they experienced an alcohol-induced blackout, 18% claimed partial amnesia and 10% claimed they experienced a drug-induced blackout. Seventy-eight percent of the defendants had more than one Axis I disorder, 34% of the defendants were diagnosed with an Axis II disorder, and 13% were diagnosed as antisocial. Diagnosed Axis I disorders were most commonly substance use disorders.
According to the researchers, the most common defendant claiming amnesia was a male aged 30 to 40 years who was charged with a violent felony against a stranger in addition to another crime, with one or more Axis I disorders, as well as a substance dependence diagnosis.
Most of the defendants (90%) in the study were found competent to stand trial and sane at the time of the crime. Only 7% were found incompetent. Eight percent of the reports opined that there was some form of amnesia or dissociation at the time of the crime. Diagnoses made in those cases included amnestic disorder not otherwise specified; dissociative disorder not otherwise specified; amnestic disorder due to head trauma; dissociative amnesia; and alcohol-induced persisting amnestic disorder.
Although many defendants claimed amnesia for some part of their alleged offense, it rarely impacted their competency to stand trial, the researchers concluded.
For more information:
Hatters-Friedman S. #NR6-01. Presented at: American Psychiatric Association 166th Annual Meeting; May 18-22, 2013; San Francisco.
Robert Wilson v. United States of America, 391 F2d 460 (DC Cir 1968).
Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.