Sleepwalking defense has long, if spotty, history

JOHN C. ENSSLIN Updated: May 14, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: May 14, 2010

Sleepwalking as a defense against a murder charge is no sure bet a defendant will walk free.

Last week, attorneys for a 14-year-old Colorado Springs boy argued that his history of sleepwalking and hallucinations undermined prosecution claims that he intentionally killed his younger brother and shot and stabbed their mother.

A judge ordered Daniel Gudino to stand trial on first-degree-murder charges in juvenile court but noted that the youngster’s sleeping disorders might be part of his defense. His next court appearance is June 7.

A review of other murder cases in which the defendant claimed to be sleepwalking shows mixed results when it came to the verdict.

“It is a mixed bag,” said Dr. Michel Cramer-Bornemann, lead investigator for Sleep Forensics Associates in Minneapolis.

The group has reviewed some 130 court cases in which a sleepwalking defense was raised. It is not involved in the Gudino case.

Cramer-Bornemann said one reason for the inconsistency in outcomes stems from the different ways in which the scientific and medical community views consciousness, compared with the way the legal and judicial community views it.

Doctors tend to have a broad spectrum of what consciousness is, he said.

“But in the legal community, they see it as all or none. Either you’re conscious or you’re not,” he said.

As an example, he asked whether a 12-year-old boy who sleepwalks is conscious. Some would say no, but the child’s eyes are open and parts of his brain are active as he navigates the furniture.

About 12 percent of children experience some form of sleepwalking, he said. That percentage spikes to 17 percent at age 12. Then, as the synaptic connections form in a person’s brain, the numbers decline to about 4 percent among adults.

Here are a few examples of murder cases in which a sleepwalking defense was used:

Sleepwalking in a brothel

The first known case of a sleepwalking defense in a murder trial in the United States occurred in Boston in 1846. That’s when Albert Jackson Tirrell was accused of murdering a prostitute by slashing her throat. Tirrell also set three fires in the brothel. That woke up the owner, who discovered the body and called police.

At trial, his lawyer argued that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker and that he could have killed the woman in a nightmare or trance state. The argument worked. After two hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Tirrell.

While many people cite this as the first sleepwalking defense, Cramer-Bornemann believes that’s a misnomer. Tirrell was acquitted under a theory of law that holds that a defendant cannot be convicted of a crime when there is a “disease of the mind” or insanity involved.

Asleep at the wheel

In May 1987, Canadian Kenneth James Parks drove about 14 miles to his in-laws’ house, stabbed his mother-in-law to death and wounded his father-in-law. He then drove to a nearby police station where he told officers, “I just killed someone with my bare hands. Oh, my God, I’ve just killed someone.”

At his trial, Parks’ lawyer presented evidence of chronic sleepwalking. He was acquitted, and an appeals court upheld the acquittal.

Cramer-Bornemann views this case as a landmark sleepwalking verdict. He points out that Parks, despite the long drive, did not seek out his victims. He attacked his in-laws only after they woke him up, thinking he was an intruder.

That’s a common trait in sleep violence, he said. People become victims by virtue of their proximity to their attacker when he is roused from sleep.

Stabbed and drowned

Scott Falater, of Phoenix, was accused of stabbing his wife 44 times then drowning her in a swimming pool in January 1997. He claimed to have no recall of the murder, and his defense argued that he was sleepwalking.

A jury, however, found Falater guilty of premeditated murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. According to the Phoenix New Times, the verdict withstood an appeal.

Fisherman stabs girlfriend

In October 2001, Stephen Reitz, a fisherman from Coronado, Calif., told police he awoke in a hotel room to find his girlfriend stabbed to death at the foot of his bed. She had also been beaten and hit over the head with a flower pot.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a jury rejected Reitz’s defense that he had been sleeping and found him guilty of first-degree murder. The newspaper quoted one juror as saying, “Nobody is going to do all that (while) sleeping.”

Although Cramer-Bornemann is not familiar with the details of the Gudino case, he said that in general, prosecutors are wise to be skeptical of a claim of violence committed while sleepwalking, sometimes referred to as “automatism.”

The Sleep Forensics website quotes a Canadian judge from a 1972 case who said:

“Automatism is a defense which in a true and proper case may be the only one open to an honest man, but it may just as readily be the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

For more on this topic, go to the Sidebar blog at Gazette.com

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