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Is Amnesia a Defense to Criminal Charges?

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Many people believe that amnesia, a medical condition involving memory loss, is a common and viable defense to criminal charges. However, not remembering a crime is not always the same as being innocent. 

While a person must have the mental capacity to commit a crime, amnesia on its own is not enough to indicate incompetency. However, amnesia could be a factor in determining one’s ability to stand trial.

What Is Amnesia?

Amnesia is a medical condition where a person suffers from lost memories. People with amnesia often forget certain events, facts, and important information. Long-term effects of this condition include difficulty learning new information and forming new memories. 

Amnesia can be caused by medical conditions like stroke, brain inflammation, vitamin deficiency, and degenerative brain diseases like dementia. Symptoms of this condition include the following.

  • Difficulty remembering past events and familiar information, also known as retrograde amnesia
  • Difficulty learning new information after the onset of amnesia, also known as anterograde amnesia
  • False memories
  • Confusion

While amnesia can be temporary, some people experience more devastating symptoms. In some cases, the areas of the brain responsible for memory processing become damaged, resulting in the permanent loss of memory. There is no cure for this condition, but occupational therapy, assistive technologies, and certain medications.

Amnesia as a Defense to Criminal Charges In Washington State

For a court to find someone guilty of a crime in Washington, the defendant must have the mental capacity to commit the crime. In most cases, amnesia on its own is not enough to prove a lack of mental ability. However, some courts may consider amnesia as a factor while assessing the defendant’s competency to stand trial.

When determining mental capacity, criminal courts assess the defendant’s mental state at the time of the incident. If the amnesia occurs after the crime, the court will not accept it as a defense. Even if the defendant does not remember the event, he or she could still have intended to and actually committed the crime at the time. 

If the amnesia severely impairs the defendant, the condition could compromise his or her ability to stand trial. A person who cannot competently stand trial cannot be convicted of a crime. In these situations, the court will evaluate the following factors.

  • Whether the amnesia is temporary or permanent
  • Whether the amnesia affects the defendant’s ability to discuss the case’s defense
  • Whether the crime can be reconstructed without the defendant’s testimony
  • Whether the prosecution’s files can support the preparation of the case
  • The overall strength of the prosecution’s case against the defendant

Speak to a Criminal Defense Attorney as Soon as Possible

If you have amnesia and are facing criminal charges, you need an attorney on your side. While amnesia is not a defense to criminal charges on its own, this condition could impact your ability to stand trial. In these situations, your attorney can argue for reduced penalties or ask the court to drop the charges against you.

A criminal defense lawyer can evaluate your case and identify your optimal path to the best possible outcome in your case. As soon as possible following your arrest, contact a Washington defense attorney to discuss your legal options and strategize your next steps. 


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