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To the Editor: In the study of neonaticide by Margaret G. Spinelli, M.D. (1), amnesia was reported by 14 (93%) of 15 murderers of newborns. Such a high prevalence of amnesia has never been described before in neonaticide, to our knowledge, and may reflect the use of the Dissociative Experiences Scale to systematically screen for dissociative phenomena. Alternatively, it is conceivable that presenting the accused with an extensive checklist of mental symptoms may inadvertently educate them about psychiatric symptoms that might provide an alibi or justification for their actions.
In an archival study of 53 murders of newborns committed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between 1900 and 1995 (2), amnesia was the only psychiatric symptom observed; it was reported by 17 (32%) of the women. Among the 26 women indicted under the Brazilian 1890 infanticide statute (which granted to single women killing their newborns a considerably lighter punishment in the defense of their honor than to common murderers) only two (8%) reported amnesic symptoms. Among 27 women indicted under the Brazilian infanticide statute of 1940 (based on the concept that the influence of the puerperal state might trigger a brief psychotic episode and lead to the killing of the newborn), 15 (55%) reported amnesia. This statistically significant difference (χ2=11.82, df=1, p<0.001) between the two groups led us to hypothesize that the 1940 statute’s emphasis on the causal role of a putative psychiatric disorder may have prompted the accused to falsely acknowledge psychiatric symptoms in order to avoid being charged with homicide.
Since tests for malingering were not employed in Dr. Spinelli’s study, it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of these reports of amnesia. We would be grateful if Dr. Spinelli could provide additional information about the nature and the timing of the dissociative symptoms. It would be important to know if the reports of amnesia were spontaneous or were elicited by the Dissociative Experiences Scale.
Murder of newborns represents a significant clinical, forensic, and moral problem. Solving the riddle of these amnesic symptoms is an important first step toward developing effective preventive measures and scientifically based legal approaches for women who killed their newborns.
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