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Dissociation as a modifying variable of imputability in criminal cases

Journal of Psychology & Clinical Psychiatry
Pedro V Mateo-Fernández,1,2,4 Iria de la Osa Subtil,1,3,4 María Ángeles de la Cruz-Fortún1,2


In the field of Legal and Forensic Psychology, the assessment of psychological impairment is crucial in criminal cases. This article explores how dissociation, a psychological defense mechanism, affects the degree of criminal imputability. Dissociative disorders, often a consequence of severe trauma or high-stress situations, can coexist with various disorders, complicating the assessment of imputability. Dissociation affects cognitive (perception, attention, memory, thinking, language) and volitional (self-control, determination, motivation, resistance to external pressure) abilities, which are essential for determining criminal responsibility. In the judicial system, it must be assessed whether dissociation prevented the defendant from understanding the illegality of his actions or from controlling his actions by analyzing the impairment of these cognitive and volitional capacities, respectively. Dissociation may hinder the understanding and control of the defendant’s actions, influencing the assessment of his imputability. In the Spanish legal framework, Articles 20 and 21 of the Criminal Code provide for exonerating and mitigating circumstances in cases of psychological impairment, so defense attorneys will try to argue that dissociation exempts from criminal liability, while prosecutors seek to prove the opposite and request penalties commensurate with the criminal liability demonstrated. Given the complexity of dissociation and its impact on imputability, it is vital that psychiatric and psychological evaluations be rigorous to aid the decision-making process and to try to ensure that decisions are as fair and balanced as possible. In conclusion, rigorous psychological evaluation and careful legal review are required to adequately address these cases, recognizing the complexity of the human mind in general and dissociation in particular.


forensic psychologist, criminal court cases, dissociation, imputability, cognitive and volitional capacities