Murder and dementia: An exploration of legal and neuropsychological factors of Australian cases

Dr Amee Baird1, Professor Jeanette Kennett1, Dr Eliabeth Schier1

1Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia


When a murder is committed by an elderly person, the question of whether they have any cognitive impairment may be raised. A specific type of dementia, namely behavioural variant fronto-temporal dementia (bv-FTD), with the hallmark symptom of behavioural and personality change, has been found to be more commonly associated with criminal behaviour compared with other types of dementia such as Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD). This symposium will explore neuropsychological and ethico-legal factors in 28 Australian cases of murder in which dementia was raised as a possible diagnosis of the subject of the legal proceedings. We conclude that the treatment of people with dementia in the legal system cannot be fully accommodated within existing frameworks for dealing with individuals with other forms of cognitive impairment. There is a clear need for more specific guidelines for individuals with dementia to ensure consistency and fairness in the justice system.

Speaker 1 Elizabeth Schier: Identification of Australian murder and dementia cases

This presentation will outline how the cases were identified and the nature of the transcripts reviewed. Keywords ‘dementia’, ‘murder’ or ‘killing’ were used to identify relevant Australian case law in the Australasian Legal Information Institute database. Of the 175 results we found 28 cases where the court or tribunal considered whether an individual who had been accused of killing another person had dementia. For a number of cases there was more than one transcript available, in which case all were examined. These transcripts were then examined in detail in order to extract a range of information. Cases highlighting specific issues will be discussed.

Speaker 2 Amee Baird: Neuropsychological factors of Australian murder and dementia cases

This presentation outlines the neuropsychological factors of the 28 cases, including types of dementia and expert witnesses, references to neuroimaging and formal diagnostic criteria of dementia. The most common type of dementia was alcohol related (8/28 cases). There was scarce reference to formal dementia diagnostic criteria in the case judgements. Psychiatrists were the dominant type of expert witness. In cases were dementia is raised as a possible diagnosis of an offender, we suggest that there should be more reliance on the expertise of clinicians in the field of neurodegenerative disorders, rather than deferring to the traditional domination of psychiatrists in the courtroom.

Speaker 3 Jeanette Kennett: Ethicolegal factors of Australian murder and dementia cases

A diagnosis of dementia in a criminal offender raises complex issues regarding criminal responsibility and sentencing. In the 28 cases we examined, a possible diagnosis of dementia was relevant in two main ways: (1) it undermined the subject’s fitness to stand trial, or (2) it reduced or removed their responsibility. A decrease in culpability must be weighed against other sentencing factors including risk and failure of individual deterrence. The issue of the justice of sentencing of offenders who may forget why they are being punished, and the need to consider alternatives to prison for this population will also be discussed.


Dr Elizabeth Schier is a Cognitive Scientist who works at the interface of Psychology and Philosophy. Since receiving her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Adelaide she has had a range of research and teaching positions at Macquarie University, Open University Australia, the University of New South Wales and Charles Sturt University. She is currently working as a researcher on the Australian Neurolaw Database at Macquarie University and supervising three moral Psychology honours students at Charles Sturt University.

Dr Amee Baird completed a PhD and MPsych (Clinical Neuropsychology) at the University of Melbourne. She has worked as a clinical neuropsychologist for 15 years in both clinical and research positions in Australia and overseas at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, and Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. She is currently funded by an NHMRC/ARC Dementia Research Development Fellowship as a part time health professional and also has a private practice where she conducts clinical and medicolegal neuropsychological assessments.

Professor Jeanette Kennett is a philosopher who works at the intersection of philosophy, psychology and law. She completed her PhD at Monash and held positions at Monash and ANU before joining Macquarie in 2009. She has held 7 ARC Discovery Grants including her current grant on Dementia, Agency and Identity, and has published extensively on mental disorder, moral agency and moral and legal responsibility. She leads the Australian Neurolaw Database Project, she is co-chair of the Australian Brain Alliance Neuroethics working group and Deputy Director of the Centre for Agency Values and Ethics at Macquarie University.

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