A repressed memory is created when a person subconsciously blocks a memory that was caused by an especially traumatic or stressful event. In the legal system, discussion of repressed memories is found mostly with child sexual abuse cases.
These controversial discussions are found both in criminal prosecutions and in civil lawsuits where an adult victim claims they recently remembered that they were abused as a child and now want justice for the crime committed against them.
Why are Repressed Memories Controversial?
Beginning in the 1980s and gaining public attention in the 1990s, repressed memory therapy has offered a gateway for victims seeking justice as well as the creation of false accusations. There have been cases where a victim recovers a memory that is later corroborated by a confession of the abuser and other evidence.
On the other hand, there have also been cases where a repressed memory was later discovered to be false and caused an innocent person to be accused and convicted of a heinous crime.
There have been varying studies showing different conclusions about the existence of repressed memories and this lack of continuity has caused courts to differ wildly on whether to permit victims to testify about their newly recovered memories of abuse.
Currently, the American Psychological Association acknowledges that there is no way to distinguish a repressed memory from a false one without corroborating evidence.
Can a Victim’s Repressed Memory be Admitted as Evidence in Court?
Eye-witness testimony in general has a long history of being inaccurate and unreliable. But courts still must allow witnesses to testify and be subjected to cross examination where both sides have an opportunity to show how the witness’s account of events are either fact or works of creation.
In most cases involving a repressed memory of abuse, the victim believes the memory to be real and accurate. In many states, a victim should be able to testify about this newly recovered account of abuse but the accused certainly will have the ability to expose how this memory came to exist including whether there was a suggestive therapist who implanted the memory or some other motive to why the memory was recently recovered.
In criminal prosecutions and in civil lawsuits, the exclusive use of a repressed memory is not likely enough evidence to prove the abuse occurred. Because these cases are usually decades old, there may not be any corroborating evidence to support the victim’s case. And without corroboration, it becomes difficult to determine whether such a memory is even real.
Do Statutes of Limitation Apply to Repressed Memory Cases?
In many states, yes, a child sex abuse case can be barred by a statute of limitations. In other states, the delayed discovery rules can overcome the statute of limitations. Child sex abuse as a crime and as a civil tort, typically have a statute of limitations around 3-5 years depending on the state.
If the victim does not report the crime or file a lawsuit within the time frame, their claim is not actionable. However, some states use delayed discovery rules to allow victims to proceed with their claim.
These rules allow the clock for the statute of limitations to begin when the victim discovers they were abused which can include the moment they recover the repressed memory of abuse.
How Can a Lawyer Help Me Regarding My Repressed Memories?
A lawyer familiar with criminal law and personal injury liability can help to determine whether your case has any merit both in a criminal prosecution and in a civil lawsuit. Child sex abuse is traumatic and going through a court case can feel like re-victimization.
Consulting with a lawyer before reporting and filing a claim can help you understand the likelihood of success for your claim and the best strategy for handling the case.
If you have already reported your abuse, a lawyer can assist you understanding your rights as a victim and what to expect as you go through the justice system.