A commentary on amnesia and murder
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Also published in CrimNet (17 March 2021), Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney https://t.e2ma.net/message/v48n0d/zvkuvln
The forensic literature is replete with reports of offenders who have claimed total or partial amnesia for violent crimes, including murder, attempted murder, and sexual assault (Jelicic, 2018). In this matter, R v Graham Anthony George Sloane  NSWSC 152, Mr Graham Sloane claimed amnesia in relation to the violent killing of his friend Ms Renee Mitchell.
CrimNet spoke with Sydney Law School PhD candidate Pei Kong, who assisted in the clinical assessments in this matter. “I was the clinical psychologist assisting my clinical supervisor and forensic expert Dr Gary Banks in conducting a psychological assessment of Mr Sloane and his ‘fitness to stand trial’ in response to a referral from the NSW Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. At the time of the referral, Mr Sloane had consistently maintained to police over three years that he ‘could not remember anything,” said Ms Kong.
The impact of trauma on memory has been subject to long-standing debate, with two main theoretical perspectives emerging. “According to the traumatic memory argument (TMA), traumatic events result in memory impairment such that recollections contain sensory/emotional images but lack a coherent verbal narrative. Conversely, the trauma superiority argument (TSA) asserts that trauma may enhance memory rather than impair it, resulting in vivid and coherent memories (Porter et al., 2007).
To date most research has focused on trauma and memory in victims or witnesses with relatively little attention to perpetrator memory. Based on past research on victims and witnesses however, there is increasing evidence for the validity of the TSA. Different retrieval cues have been shown to be effective in assisting with recall of a complex event with suspects (Fisher & Perez, 2007; Milne & Bull, 1999),” said Ms Kong.
Ms Kong observed Dr Banks utilising several techniques during the assessment to assist Mr Sloane’s recall of the day of the alleged offence. “These included context reinstatement, where Mr Sloane was asked to recall and recreate his physiological, cognitive, and emotional states in the days leading up to the day Ms Mitchell was killed and the days after. Whilst Mr Sloane was adamant that his memory was ‘a blur’, he confirmed that there were fragments of memories (often referred to as ‘islands of memory’), which are isolated memories that are vivid, detailed, and specific (Blomert & Sisler, 1984). Using the latter phase of the Cognitive Interview (Milne & Bull 1999), Dr Banks focussed on these ‘islands’ or ‘anchors of memories’ and used varying temporal sequences (specifically backwards recall) to facilitate Mr Sloane’s recollection,” said Ms Kong.
“Mr Sloane showed considerable difficulty reconstructing his memories of the day of offence in chronological order; however when asked to do this in bite-sized elements in reverse order, he was able to recall his movements and interactions from the point of being arrested, back to the point of the critical event with Ms Mitchell. Dr Banks did not engage in constructive recall, which involves prompting or using information from other sources to assist Mr Sloane’s construction of his narrative. Despite Mr Sloane’s hypomanic state on the day of the offence, he was able to recall snapshots of his activities, thoughts, emotions, and behaviours on the day of the offence. Using a reverse narrative process (‘tell me what happened just before that?’), he was then able to connect these snapshots or islands of memories to form a coherent narrative of how he murdered Ms Mitchell,” said Ms Kong.
Mr Sloane was found fit to be tried, with the judge finding that his mental illness did not impair his sense of wrongfulness and did not greatly reduce his moral culpability. Mr Sloane was ultimately convicted of the offence of murdering Ms Mitchell.
Comment: Dr Gary Banks consents to the publication of this article and is satisfied that it does not disclose any confidential information that has not already been published in the judgement. It provides a description of the assessment process rather than specific details provided by Mr Sloane. The expert report was admitted into evidence and on public record; Dr Banks has been subjected to robust cross-examination about the interview and assessment.
Pei Kong is a practicing clinical psychologist and a PhD candidate at the Sydney Law School, University of Sydney. Pei’s PhD research is investigating how expert evidence promotes meaningful child participation in care and adoption matters in New South Wales. She is supervised by Professor Rita Shackel, Professor Judith Cashmore and Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright. Pei has assisted senior court appointed expert Dr Gary Banks in conducting expert assessments in family law, child protection, adoption, and criminal proceedings over the last eight years.
Jelicic, M. (2018). Testing claims of crime-related amnesia. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 617.
Porter, S., Woodworth, M. & Doucetter, N.L. (2007) Memory for murder: The qualities and credibility of homicide narratives by perpetrators. In Sven A. Christianson (Ed) -Offenders’ Memories of Violent Crimes, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Fisher, R.P. and Perez, V. (2007) Memory-enhancing techniques for interviewing crime suspects. In Sven A. Christianson (Ed)- Offenders’ Memories of Violent Crimes, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Milne, R., and Bull, R (1999) Investigative Interviewing – Psychology and Practice. West Sussex, UK.: Wiley & Sons.
Blomert, D. M., & Sisler, G. C. (1974). The measurement of retrograde post-traumatic amnesia. Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal, 19(2), 185-192.