Memory for murder. A psychological perspective on dissociative amnesia in legal contexts

Int J Law Psychiatry. Jan-Feb 2001;24(1):23-42. doi: 10.1016/s0160-2527(00)00066-2.


There is currently a complex and inconsistent state in the law relating to dissociation and dissociative amnesia (McSherry, 1998). Although dissociative amnesia in defendants is relevant to both competency to stand trial and criminal responsibility in principle, courts have typically assumed a skeptical stance toward such claims in practice. However, there is considerable evidence from both nonoffender and offender populations to support the validity of dissociative amnesia in defendants. Further, there is information available to aid in the evaluation of amnesia, such as the quality of the report itself and characteristics of the person reporting the amnesia (e.g., psychopathy). When consideration is given to the legal response to reports of dissociative amnesia by complainants, the situation becomes even more complex. While some courts have rejected recovered memory evidence, others have convicted defendants of historical offenses based on such evidence. In some cases, judges have argued that jurors should be left to decide on the validity of recovered memories based on their common sense and experience. The uncritical acceptance of the validity of repressed memories in complainants by many courts stands in stark contrast to the response to claims of amnesia from defendants. It seems apparent that the courts need better guidelines around the issue of dissociative amnesia in both populations. We think that the increasing scientific understanding of memory in the past decade (see Schacter, 1999) can meaningfully contribute to the development of such guidelines. Responsible, nonpartisan expert testimony from mental health professionals would be one step in the direction of rectifying the current state of law in regards to dissociation.

Publication types

  • Legal Case
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amnesia / complications
  • Amnesia / psychology*
  • Canada
  • Criminal Law / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Dissociative Disorders / complications
  • Dissociative Disorders / psychology*
  • Homicide / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Jurisprudence
  • Mental Competency
  • Repression, Psychology
  • Violence