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Dreams Questionable as Trial Evidence, Experts Say : Testimony: They do not forecast actions, psychiatrists caution. The issue could be grounds for legal appeal.

February 02, 1995|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Did O.J. Simpson dream about killing his ex-wife? While attorneys in the notorious murder trial wrangled in court Wednesday over whether the famed athlete ever confessed to such dreams, Freud was probably turning in his grave.

Psychiatrists and other experts say that dreams--scripts written, produced and enacted by the unconscious mind--are excellent tools for understanding ourselves. But if you ask a psychotherapist what a dream could prove in a court of law, you're likely to get tossed off the couch. Dreams, they say, do not forecast actions we undertake in our waking lives and may not even represent a person's state of mind in a literal way. Yet in court Wednesday, prosecutors argued that Simpson's alleged dreams offered "powerful evidence" of a "fatal obsession" with Nicole Brown Simpson. They offered testimony from a Simpson friend that Simpson had confessed he dreamed of murdering his ex-wife--a statement that attorneys for the celebrated defendant deny he ever uttered.

The suggestion that dreams can provide evidence of criminal thoughts or behavior drew immediate brickbats from legal experts, who said that admitting the friend's statement could provide the basis for an appeal.

The reaction in the psychological community was just as swift.

"Anybody who has been in psychoanalysis knows you don't take a dream at surface level to figure out what it means," said Martin L. Levine, a USC law professor and psychoanalyst.

"Everybody in therapy says, 'Oh, I wonder what that dream was really about.' Or, 'I wonder who that dream is really about.' Maybe it's about your mother or somebody else. A dream that on the surface is about killing might actually be about something else."

Controversy ensues any time psychologically based testimony enters a courtroom. In fact, American jurisprudence long has had a love-hate relationship with psychology.

On one hand, judges and lawyers tend to be drawn to anything that can claim the authority of "science," particularly when it yields insights into what is otherwise inaccessible.

On the other hand--and particularly in recent years--they have worried endlessly over whether the acceptance of psychological explanations for human conduct undercuts the notions of individual responsibility on which the criminal justice system rests.

In past eras, Harvard neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson said, even moral theorists grappled with dreams, particularly when they dealt with subjects or activities that society considered taboo, such as incest or murder. In some societies, dreams were often given the same weight as actions. Levine said that when a Roman emperor heard that a senator had dreamed of assassinating him, he had the senator executed.

Today, debate rages on about where dreams come from and what they mean. Some psychotherapists believe that dreams express wishes. Others think they reveal fears. And most think their meanings vary so much that interpretations without context are meaningless.

Many studies have shown that dreams are often replays of traumatic occurrences. People who committed homicides often do dream repeatedly about the event, much like movie replays, said Dr. Charles Marmar, professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco.

As time passes, those dreams can change from literal to symbolic replays. For instance, Marmar said, a person who was caught in a burning house may dream later of being trapped in other situations, such as in a car wreck.

"Later on, what people dream about is the internal state . . . of terror or helplessness," said Marmar, who has studied earthquake survivors. "That is pretty well documented."

What is not well researched, he said, is the question of whether dreams can presage behavior.

"I am not aware of a well-developed body of research about the relationship between the content of dreams and subsequent behavior," Marmar said. "One has to be very, very cautious about the notion of dreams as premonitions."

Hobson, the Harvard dream expert, agreed. "There is no scientific study of this matter," he said.

A scientific opinion on whether dreams of aggression translate into aggressive acts would have to be carefully conducted, he said. "You would have to know the incidence of aggressive or murderous dreams toward a love object in two populations: people who have been convicted and shown to be murderers, and people who lived happily ever after.

"We don't know the link between the presence of emotion in a dream (and actions). 'I dreamed of stabbing my wife and a man I thought was her boyfriend with a kitchen knife'--we need to know how many people have dreams like that. We don't know.

"But aggressive emotion in dreams is very high. So it wouldn't come as too great a surprise to learn that many people (who) are as innocent as lambs in waking life . . . dreamed about doing absolutely dreadful things."

Other experts suggest that there might be valid ways to consider dreams as evidence in a criminal trial.

Research has shown that only about 0.1% of men dream about murdering a woman they know, said Veronica Tonay, a psychologist at UC Santa Cruz. "If there is a repeated theme of murder in a person's dreams, I would say that represents a preoccupation with murdering," she said.

But whether such preoccupation translates into action, she said, "that's tricky. It seems strange, but there is no way in psychology to predict violence at all."

Times staff writer Tim Rutten contributed to this story.

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