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Sleepwalking

Massachusetts v. Tirrel (1846, Boston)—acquitted
Arizona v. Falater (1999)—convicted
R. v. Parks [1992] 2 S.C.C.R. 871; 95 D.L.R. (4th) 27—acquitted, *landmark case
Indiana v. McLain (1993) —convicted
US v. Clayton (2000)—convicted
California v Reitz (2004)—convicted and upheld on appeal
R. v. Lowe (2005, Manchester, England)—acquitted
R. v. Catling (2005, Dorset, England)—convicted and upheld on appeal
Pennsylvania v. Ricksgers (1993)—convicted


Massachusetts v. Tirrel (1846, Boston)—acquitted

The first documented case of sleepwalking used as a defense against murder charges took place in 1846 when Albert Jackson Tirrell was put on trial for the murder of Maria Bickford in Boston, Massachusetts.

Maria Bickford was a beautiful woman who lived and worked in a brothel. Her customers were rich men. One of those customers was Albert Tirrell, a married man and father from Weymouth, MA, who left his family to live near Maria. It was said that he wanted her to give up her profession but she refused, preferring to remain independent.

On October 27, 1845 Tirrell was alleged to have visited Bickord’s bedroom and slit her throat from ear to ear – almost decapitating her. He then set three fires in the brothel. The owner awoke, discovered Bickford’s body and called the police. Several people witnessed Tirrell entering and leaving the building but there were no eyewitnesses to the murder.

Tirrell went into hiding. He was later captured in New Orleans and returned to Boston for the trial.

Tirrell’s lawyer, one of the leading defense attorneys of the time, stated that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker who could have murdered Bickford under the influence of a nightmare or a trance. He included extensive testimony by family members and others regarding the defendant's prior sleepwalking. At this time in history, there was no medical explanation for sleepwalking. Tirrell’s lawyer successfully convinced the jury through graphic descriptions of violence attributed to sleepwalking that Tirrell was unaware of his actions when he killed Maria Bickford. After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict of not guilty on March 30, 1846.

Our current knowledge about parasomnias suggests Tirrell’s behavior at the scene of the crime was incompatible with sleepwalking. Specifically, setting fire to the room to cover up the crime, fleeing the scene and going into hiding are inconsistent behaviors. In today’s courtroom the outcome would most likely be different.

Arizona v. Falater (1999) – convicted

In 1997 in Arizona, Scott Falater, a devout Mormon, admitted to stabbing his wife 44 times with a hunting knife and drowning her in their swimming pool. Falater, who had no apparent motive, tried to mount a sleepwalking defense. His lawyer suggested he had gone to fix the pool pump while sleepwalking and had attacked his wife when she tried to stop him. Falater said he had a history of sleepwalking, was sleep-deprived, and was unconscious at the time of the attack.

A neighbor, who had witnessed the drowning and called police, testified to seeing him drag her into the back yard. The neighbor saw him stand over his wife’s body, then head to the garage for work gloves. Upon returning, Falater moved her body in several planned stages to the pool, where he then pushed her in and held her head underwater. She did not resist. The neighbor also witnessed Falater motion for his dog to lie down, a possible sign of consciousness.

Police later found the knife, bloody clothes, boots, gloves and undergarments stuffed in a Tupperware container hidden in his car. A jury found Falater guilty of first-degree murder in 1999.

R. v. Parks [1992] 2 S.C.C.R. 871; 95 D.L.R. (4th) 27 – acquitted, *landmark case

graphicDeadly Dreams: Detectives discover a historical precedent for killing while sleepwalking: A Toronto man, Kenneth Parks, was acquitted of the murder. Source: Dateline MSNBC (video)

This is a leading Supreme Court of Canada decision on the criminal automatism defense. In 1987 Kenneth Parks, a 23-year old married father, arose from the couch where he had fallen asleep in front of the tv, put on his coat, and drove 14 miles to the house of his in-laws. There, he strangled his father-in-law until unconscious and then bludgeoned his mother-in-law with a tire iron before stabbing them both with a kitchen knife. The woman died; the man barely survived.

From all accounts, Parks had been very close with his in-laws and seemed to lack motive for the attack. However, Parks was recently unemployed and under a lot of stress. The evening of the attack, he may have been thinking about visiting his in-laws the following day with his wife, to tell them about his financial and gambling problems.

After the attack, Parks got in his car and drove to a police station, confused. He appeared oblivious to the fact that he'd severed tendons in both of his hands. His obliviousness to pain and strong family history of parasomnias led experts to testify that Parks had been sleepwalking during the attack.

It appears as though the victims had found Parks wandering around in their house and, in attempting to restrain him, provoked the attack.

Parks was acquitted of murder. Not conscious, not responsible, not guilty.

Indiana v. McLain (1993) —convicted

On December 20, 1993, McClain was involved in an altercation with police officers in Indianapolis, leading to charges of aggravated battery, battery against police officers, and resisting arrest. At the time, he was severely jet lagged (he had flown from Japan to Indianapolis without sleep) and under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. He did not remember the events after the fact.

McClain argued that his violent behavior was a form of automatism caused by sleep deprivation and that he had no criminal responsibility for what he had done. He filed a notice of intent to use the insanity defense due to sleep deprivation but then withdrew it after researching the matter and believing that evidence of "automatism" did not need to be presented as an insanity defense.

Prior to proceedings, the court held that McClain’s evidence related to automatism was a "mental disease or defect" under Indiana Code § 35-41-3-6. Therefore, it had to be presented under the insanity statute. McClain was precluded from presenting evidence of sleep deprivation because he had withdrawn his insanity defense before trial. He was convicted.

US v. Clayton (2000) – convicted

Chased victim down street and hit victim in head with hammer several times. Requested to borrow hammer from fellow officer. Then requested screwdriver. When victim turned around, attacked him with hammer.

Close proximity. Significant history of sleepwalking behaviors acknowledged by prosecution. However, his violent behavior was not thought to be out of character as he had history of domestic violence while awake.

California v. Reitz (2004) – convicted and upheld on appeal

graphicDeadly dreams: A man kills his girlfriend, but claims it happened while he was sleepwalking. (video) Source: Dateline MSNBC

On October 1, 2001, Eva Marie Weinfurtner, a married woman, was beaten and stabbed to death by her 25-year-old boyfriend, Stephen Otto Reitz, while they were on a weekend getaway on Catalina Island.

Reitz, a shark fisherman and sailing instructor, smashed flowerpot against Weinfurtner's head, dislocated her elbow and wrist, and stabbed her four times in the back of the neck with his pocketknife, resulting in her death.

Reitz went down to the fire station after waking at 1 a.m. and finding Weinfurtner dead on the floor of their hotel room. Making note of the wounds to the back of her neck— similar to those he used to kill sharks—he thought may have killed her. He later told detectives he didn't recall attacking her, but remembered a dream in which he struggled with an intruder.

Reitz had a history of sleepwalking. In addition, Reitz was under treatment for bi-polar disorder. He said he'd forgotten his medicine and Weinfurtner had given him some kind of a prescription that she had for anxiety. They were also drinking and using recreational drugs the night of her death. Police found half a bottle of tequila, several empty beer bottles and a rolled up five-dollar bill with cocaine residue in the room, as well as cards on the table and a scorebook with the results of several hands of Gin Rummy. It looked like it had been an intimate evening before the attack.

After his original conviction, a sleep expert joined the case and Reitz was sent to a sleep clinic. The tests revealed not only a propensity to sleepwalk, but Reitz also suffered a significant night terror that was caught on tape.

Regardless of his history of parasomnias, his conviction was upheld and on August 19, 2004, Stephen Reitz was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.

R. v. Lowe (2005, Manchester, England) – acquitted

On the morning of October 30, 2004, the body of 83-year-old Edward Lowe was found fully clothed on his driveway in Manchester, England. His son, Jules Lowe, emerging from the house naked, smelling strongly of alcohol and exclaiming "Oh my God, Dad!" later admitted that he caused his father's death, but said he had no recollection of the incident. He was acquitted and sentenced to a mental institution indefinitely after a successful automatism defense.

People who knew the men said they had a close relationship. The night of the attack, both men were severely intoxicated. They had had a lengthy drinking session at the family home after attending the stepmother’s funeral.

Jules Lowe apparently went to sleep in a separate room before arising and beating his father. The beatings continued on at least three different floors of the house and resulted in 90 separate injuries to the victim. It ended on the front walk of house, where the body of Edward Lowe was later found.

Jules Lowe's claim of "automatism," which effectively meant he was unaware of his own actions, was dismissed by the prosecution as "far-fetched in the extreme." The repeated nature of the beatings in different locations was not consistent with typical sleepwalking violence. However, at the end of a week-long trial the jury found Lowe not guilty of murder.

How sleepwalking can lead to killing - Jules Lowe, 32, was acquitted of murdering his father because he was sleepwalking at the time. He was found not guilty due to insanity. (article) Source: BBC News

R. v. Catling (2005, Dorset, England) – convicted and upheld on appeal

On August 6, 2003, Michael Catling cut the throat of Samantha Vines—the mother of his then 18-month-old daughter—and stabbed her 10 times as she slept in her bedroom. Catling, a pub manager, had split with Vines but was staying with her on the night of her murder.

The 28-year-old Catling claimed he had no memory of the attack because he’d had at least six sleeping pills (zopiclone), antidepressants (Seroxat) and about 14 pints of beer.

After crashing a car with his daughter inside, he went to a police station covered in blood and said that someone had attacked Vines in her apartment and he had fled. Police broke into the apartment and found Vines on her bed with her throat cut, a seven-inch kitchen knife sticking out of her left breast and Catling's bloody hand print on the wall.

Catling’s defense of "automatism" due to sleepwalking fell down after investigation by experts, and he pleaded guilty to murder. He was jailed for life with a minimum term of 13 years before he eligibility for parole.

Pennsylvania v. Ricksgers (1993) – convicted

In 1994, Michael Ricksgers he awoke to find a gun in his hand and his wife bleeding in bed beside him. He called the police.

Ricksgers claimed that he was awoken by the sound of a gunshot. He said that he might have been dreaming about an intruder breaking in before he grabbed his gun from under the mattress, firing the bullet that struck his wife in the hip and deflected upward, killing her.

Ricksgers claimed it was all an accident and that he was sleepwalking. His defense lawyers presented his clinical history of severe obstructive sleep apnea. Prosecutors presented a different explanation. They claimed that Ricksgers was upset that his wife was planning to leave him.

Ricksgers was sentenced to life in prison without parole.