Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Friday, December 26, 2008


Just finished reading John Lescroart's Betrayal (at 1 a.m. this morning, but compulsive reading is another subject for another day). In it, a defendant has no memory for the time of the crime. The defense attorney's handling of this problem is a bit muddled.

He hopes to get in Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) as the explanation for the gap in memory. In a preliminary hearing, a psychiatrist with expertise in PTSD testifies that flashback-related blackouts last only a few minutes (pp. 211-217). My quibble with this is that these experiences are not technically "blackouts" at all, but dissociative episodes. The person is fully conscious, but not really present because they are re-experiencing events from another time and another place. Most likely, they will remember the content of the flashback, but not necessarily what they said or did, or what other people said or did, while they were having it. It is in that sense that it is a blackout, in that the information they forgot was never recorded in the first place, and this is why it cannot be recalled.

During the trial, the evidence proffered is that an old head injury is the cause (pp. 274-279). Unfortunately for the defense, a neurologist testifies that brain injuries do not account for extended periods of unconsciousness (after the initial trauma, that is) and the defendant has four days to account for. Not to mention that his blood alcohol at the time of his arrest shows clearly that he'd been wide awake and drinking like a fish for goodly portions of the days in question. Here the problem is that, once again, "blackout" as a term is being used by the attorney to mean one thing, and by the expert to mean another.

The defense attorney recognizes this little problem in mid-testimony and gives up on this witness, when another question or two would have established that "blackout" is not synonymous with "unconsciousness." Indeed, testimony from a VA staffer is available to show that, while still in the hospital, the defendant had experienced an episode during which he was fully awake but thought he was still in Iraq: He remembered nothing of this afterward (pp. 226-228).

And then I must have had some kind of blackout, because I started this blog entry over two months ago and never published it. I found it when I decided to write a little scribble on memory in general, and was checking to see if I'd done that already!

I have no idea any more how I intended to finish it, so here it is, as is. Scary.

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