Amnesia and Competency to Stand Trial: Can You Defend Yourself Without Memory?

Topics: Psychology, Mental disorder, Competency evaluation Pages: 7 (2578 words) Published: May 31, 2012
Amnesia and Competency to Stand Trial:
Can you defend yourself without memory?

Mark O'Brien
Forensic Psychology
Dr. Alina Perez
Florida Institute of Technology
April 13, 2012

The American court system sometimes calls on forensic psychologists to determine the fitness of a defendant to stand trial. This paper specifically looks at the defendant amnesia as criteria for determining competency. Specifically, the author first investigates the psychological standards for determining competency and conducts a literature review of relevant research that may guide the forensic psychologist in making a determination. Next, the paper examines the legal standards for determining competency, including established precedents. The author lives in Indiana, so that state's statutes as well as federal standards are discussed. The paper then discusses whether the professional standard and the legal standard are compatible and finally outlines the role of the forensic psychologist in the competency hearing process.

Despite the notion of popular literature and television that the "insanity defense" is an automatic bye for committing heinous crimes, or even crimes of any sort, forensic psychologists are faced with the task of evaluating the validity of the claim as well as applying the legal standards and precedents when asked to testify regarding competency to stand trial. Making the determination requires evaluating the defendant's mental state according to the provisos of the DSM-IV as well as integrating the law. This can be particularly difficult because psychology remains a rapidly evolving field and the law can be somewhat resistant to change. The question this paper seeks to answer is whether one can actively participate in his own defense if he has some form of amnesia. As a part of the answer, the author will look at the evolving role of amnesia in the diagnosis of mental illness including the changes that took place with the publication of the DSM-IV and a review of several prominent studies of amnesia. Once the psychological standards regarding amnesia are established, the paper will look at the legal standards regarding competency to stand trial and whether those two standards are compatible. Finally, the paper will look at the role of the forensic psychologist in making competency recommendations and how the court has traditionally responded to those recommendations. Ultimately, amnesia negatively affects a defendant's ability to participate in his own defense, but that remains unrecognized by the criminal court system. Forensic Standards (Literature Review)

With its publication in 1994, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, (DSM-IV) made changes to the definition of dissociative identity disorder regarding the presence of interidentity amnesia. Previous to the 1994 DSM, a diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (later DID) may have used interidentity amnesia as a symptom of the disorder, but it was not required to be present for a diagnosis, (Allen & Iacono, 2001). The 1994 DSM change, wherein MPD became DID, made interidentity amnesia a diagnostic criteria. That is, the patient must demonstrate an absence of knowledge between identities. After the 1994 DSM, the researchers wanted to investigate the empirical evidence of interidentity amnesia, specifically concentrating how a psychologist might better determine if that amnesia existed via the use of psychophysiological testing.

The authors of this study established the need for further testing with a literature review of previous empirical studies regarding interidentity amnesia. Further, they noted that a previous diagnosis of MPD would not have required a criminal defendant to establish the existence of the amnesia in order to garner a verdict of diminished capacity or not guilty by reason of insanity, but the change in the diagnosis procedure for DID required such proof be offered to the...

References: Allen, J.J.B. and Iacono, W. G. (2001) Assessing the validity of amnesia in Dissociative Identity Disorder: A dilemma for the DSM and the court, Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 7 (2), 311-344. Retrieved March 10, 2012, from
Bourget, D., M.D. and Whitehurst, L. (2007) Amnesia and Crime, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry, 35 (4), 469-480. Retrieved March 13, 2012, from
Tysee, J.E. (2005) Note: The Right to an "Imperfect" Trial -- Amnesia, Malingering, and Competency to Stand Trial, William Mitchell Law Review, 32 (1). Retrieved March 14, 2012, from
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