The Sleepwalking Defense

Patient Expert

In a recent court case in the Northern Territory of Australia, Leonard Andrew Spencer was found not guilty of gross indecency and having sex without consent. His defense? Sex-sleep or sexsomnia.

A woman who was house-sitting for Mr. Spencer awoke to find Mr. Spencer in her bed having sex with her. He was arrested, but claimed no memory of his nighttime behavior. Sleep-sex is a form of somnambulism (sleepwalking) and memory loss is a common trait of somnambulism.

This is not the first time sleepwalking has been used as a defense of a crime. In several court cases in the past few years, sleepwalking has been used as a defense for murder and child molesting.

Lets take a look at some of these cases and the evidence for and against sleepwalking.

Arousal Disorders

In his book The Promise of Sleep Dr. William C. Dement lists sleepwalking under Arousal disorders. This type of disorder interferes with the transition between the stages of sleep.

Dr. Dement says. He goes on to explain that if the sleepwalker wakes, he is often confused. The sleepwalker doesn't know where he is or how he got there. He may be completely disoriented.

Sleepwalking usually occurs during the third and fourth stages of sleep, the really deep stages when we experience slow wave sleep.

Sleepwalking activity varies. Some sleepers, as Dr. Dement said, may merely sit up in bed, or get up and walk around the room. However, some very complicated activities occasionally occur, such as rearranging furniture, cooking a meal, or (scary thought) walking out of the house and entering the car. Fortunately, there are only a few known cases of a sleepwalker actually starting up the vehicle and driving away.

Why do people sleepwalk? Sleepwalking is common in childhood and may be caused by fatigue or anxiety. Sometimes children who have never before experienced an episode of sleepwalking will do so when faced with the possibility of a disruption in their family life. Sleepwalking in adults may result from similar causes. It may also be because of some drug or medication or because of a mental problem.

Let's look at some of the cases that used sleepwalking as a defense:

1982 - Maricopa County Superior Court. The man on trial was Steven Steinberg. He was accused of murdering his wife, Elena by stabbing her twenty-five times with a kitchen knife. He didn't deny the fact that he had killed her, but he did plead not guilty. His defense? He doesn't remember the crime. He was sleeping, and must have been sleepwalking when he did it. The verdict? Not guilty. He walked away from that courthouse a free man.

In 1987, Kenneth James Parks got into his car, drove to the home of his wife's parents and brutally attacked the couple, killing his mother-in-law with a tire iron and severely injuring his father-in-law. He then got back in his car and drove to the nearest police station to confess his crime. He claimed he had been asleep throughout the entire incident. Possible? Could a man not only commit murder, but also drive his car -- twice -- while asleep?

Parks was acquitted on both charges. A court of appeal upheld this verdict. Kenneth James Parks walked away, a free man.

In 1997, Scott and Yarmila Falater had been married for 20 years. Folks say it seemed like a good marriage. So why would Scott decide to kill his wife? Why would he stab her 44 times with a hunting knife and then push her into the family pool and hold her head under water? Scott says he can't tell you. He doesn't remember. He claims he was sleepwalking at the time.

One expert witness testified that "sleepwalking was by far the most probable explanation" for Falater's night of crime. The remainder of the expert team concurred.

After the lengthy trial, however, it took the jury only eight hours to bring back a verdict of guilty of premeditated murder. On January 10th of the year 2000, Scott Falater was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole. Let's hope he sleeps well.

Strange Behavior

Sleepwalking is not uncommon. And people do strange things in their sleep. They move things to odd places, they turn on TVs and stereo equipment, some people even walk to the refrigerator, fix themselves a sandwich and eat it. All without the knowledge that they have even been out of bed.

Makes you wonder just how safe you are in your own home, doesn't it? Makes you wonder just what a sleepwalker is capable of.

The sleepwalking defense has been used many more times than what I have mentioned here. A case from British Columbia featured a man who stabbed his wife numerous times, hid her body and fled to Mexico. He claims he didn't wake up until he was across the Mexican border. There are many other cases just as bizarre.

Do you agree that sleepwalking should be used in defense of a crime? Please leave a comment and let us know your opinion on this touchy subject.