Mental defenses and posttraumatic stress disorder: Assessment of criminal intent

Landy F. Sparr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Since its formal introduction into psychiatric nomenclature more than a decade ago, the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has become firmly entrenched in the legal landscape. In part, this is because PTSD seems easy to understand. It is one of only a few mental disorders for which the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) describes a known cause. Since the diagnosis is usually based on patients' self-report, however, it creates the possibility of distortion aimed at avoidance of criminal punishment, and, as a result, has achieved mixed success as a criminal defense. When providing expert testimony, mental health witnesses must take care to distinguish between mere PTSD and a causal connection between PTSD and the criminal act in question. PTSD has not only been used to abrogate or diminish responsibility, but also to arrange pre-trial plea bargaining agreements or play a role in sentencing determinations. The author explores various uses and potential abuses of PTSD in criminal jurisprudence and offers suggestions regarding retrospective PTSD assessment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-425
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Traumatic Stress
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Criminal defense
  • Forensic assessment
  • Mens rea
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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