Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Homicidal somnambulism

You may have heard the report in the news about the man from Wales who dreamed intruders had broken in and woke to find he had strangled his wife to death. Brian Thomas, 59, and his wife Christine, 57, were on holiday in a camper van last summer when he killed her. He had suffered from sleep disorders for 50 years, but had gone off his medication so the couple could share some intimacy while celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. Thomas went on trial earlier this month and has been acquitted. The judge told the jury that the defendant “was in his sleep suffering a night terror. What he did was wholly out of character,"and said to Thomas, “You are a decent man and a devoted husband. In the eyes of the law, you bear no responsibility.” The prosecution called it a unique case, but a little digging has shown that there have been a number of such "unique" cases - going back as far as the mid-19th c. - and do sometimes result in aquittal. Consider the following:
  • In 2003, Jules Lowe beat his 83-year-old father to death and left his body in the driveway, claiming that he was sleeping at the time, and was committed to a mental institution.
  • In 2001, Stephen Reitz assaulted and stabbed his girlfriend, but the court rejected his sleepwalking defense, convicted him of first degree murder, and sentenced him to 26 years in prison.
  • In 1998, Dean Sokell battered his wife to death with a claw hammer and was imprisoned for life.
  • In 1997, Scott Falater's defense that he had killed his wife by stabbing her 44 times and drowning her while he was sleepwalking was unsuccessful, and he was found guilty of first degree murder and imprisoned for life without possibility of parole.
  • In 1987, Kenneth Parks was acquitted of fatally bludgeoning his mother-in-law and attempting to strangle his father-in-law after driving 14 miles to their house, all while asleep.
  • In 1981, Steven Steinberg stabbed his wife 26 times while sleepwalking; he was found temporarily insane by a jury, who let him walk free.
Be careful if you are on Ambien! Homicidal somnambulism is quite a bit more extreme than sleepwalking or sleep-eating.

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