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Criminal Defense and Amnesia: The Importance of Memory

Imagine being on trial for and convicted of a crime you have no memory of committing. Imagine having that conviction and felon label bar you from your chosen line of work, your ability to vote, and your ability to carry a driver’s license. According to the Seattle Times, this is just what happened to Cleora Swirtz.

Swirtz, 25, faces an unusual legal predicament. Sources report that she was in a serious car crash in 2004 – so serious, in fact, that her boyfriend, riding in the passenger seat, was killed and she suffered serious injuries to her body and brain.

Police reportedly uncovered evidence showing that, when the car hit a roadside tree, Swirtz was driving faster than 100 miles per hour. But Swirtz can neither deny nor explain those allegations, since she has no memory whatsoever of the night of the incident.

Sources indicate that both Swirtz and her boyfriend were given drug and alcohol tests when they were treated at the hospital – and they all came back negative. Swirtz apparently has no memory of the accidents or the events leading up to it.

Earlier this year, she was found guilty of vehicular homicide, reports Her sentence included a $9,000 fine and a 480-hour community service obligation.

But Swirtz doesn’t believe her conviction was just. Because she has no memory of the crime for which she has been found guilty, Swirtz insists that she does not meet the criteria for competence to stand trial according to U.S. law.

And she makes a good point. The due process clause explains that, in order to participate in legal proceedings, a person must be mentally competent. By definition, a competent person is able to understand the charges against her and participate in her own defense. Defendants who are ruled incompetent cannot be tried; witnesses who are ruled incompetent cannot testify.

Because Swirtz cannot remember the crime for which she was convicted, she argues, she was not mentally competent at the time of the trial. Her criminal defense attorney has reportedly agreed to take the case to appeals court, in hopes of overturning the conviction.

Sources report that Swirtz feels she has been punished enough for her crime with the loss of her boyfriend and some of her physical and mental capacities. And she may have the law on her side, too. In past cases, appeals courts have determined that proof of excessive speed without any other evidence is not enough to prove recklessness, which prosecutors insisted occurred.

Swirtz’s appeal could attract media attention, since competence is most commonly an issue with the mentally ill, not those with amnesia related to their alleged crimes.

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