Anyone who has ever tried to reason with a sleepwalker knows they can seem to be awake, yet have bizarre and irrational behaviors. Stubborn during the best of episodes, and inconsolable, unreasonable and intense in the worst, it is not hard to imagine these walking dreamers acting out nightmares, and unintentionally turning violent. In fact, the sleepwalker’s lack of intent has been used successfully as a defense in several shocking murder trials over the years.
What is Sleepwalking?
Arising during deep sleep, sufferers can perform even complex tasks, and some have been known to leave their homes and even to drive a vehicle. Common symptoms include:
- No memory of the episode and confused or disoriented upon waking
- Blank look
- Talking while asleep
- Screaming and sleep terrors
- Weird and inappropriate behaviors
- Violence when someone tries to wake them
Given these symptoms, and the right circumstances, it isn’t hard to imagine a sleepwalker confusing a trusted friend or family member for an assailant or other threat.
Sleepwalking Killers (Who Got Away with It)
One of the earliest known sleepwalking murders was committed by Albert Tirrell in October 1845 in Boston, Massachusetts. His mistress, Mary Ann Bickford, was found dead in her seedy boardinghouse. Her throat had been slashed (6 inches across and three deep), one ear was cut and an earring was missing, her skin was charred and her hair was singed. Her killer had set her bed on fire.
Tirrell was a wealthy and married man who had taken to carousing with Mary years earlier (although both were, at the time of her death, only in their early 20s), and their relationship was known to be tempestuous.
On the night she was killed, Mary had been seen with Tirrell, although he had left by the time she was discovered. Witnesses testified that he obtained a ride hurriedly that evening, and had sought out relatives for assistance with leaving Boston. His brother-in-law testified that Tirrell said he was fleeing from an earlier charge of adultery, and seemed surprised to hear of Mary’s murder.
At his trial, Tirrell’s able attorney used several examples from history to explain how capable, yet unaware, sleepwalkers could be. He also presented testimony from Tirrell’s family about the extent of Tirrell’s somnambulism since a young age.
After two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
On May 24, 1987, late in the evening, Kenneth Parks, who had fallen asleep in his living room, abruptly rose, put on his coat, grabbed his car keys and left his house in Toronto, Canada. On his way out, he left both the front door, and the door to the garage, open.
He drove about 14 miles to the home of his in-laws, Barbara and Donald Woods. He was planning on attending a fun family event there the next day, and all agreed that before the evening of the killings, he had a good relationship with his in-laws and had no motive for hurting them.
After he entered their home, the Woods tried to restrain Parks. He then strangled (but not to death) Donald and bludgeoned and stabbed Barbara many times, causing her death.
While committing the crime, he severed every flexor tendon on each of his 10 fingers. As he left their home, he was observed by the Woods’ teenage daughters who heard him grunting like an animal. Later that night (or early morning), he went to the police station and told them, “I think I killed somebody.”
At his trial for murder, the defense presented his well-established history of sleepwalking, which ran strongly in his family, as well as the other facts of the case, in order to establish an automatism (sleepwalking) defense.
He was acquitted of murder, and that judgment was sustained on appeal.
On or about October 30, 2003 in Manchester, England, Jules Lowe, 32, beat his 83-year-old father, Edward Lowe, to death. The two men resided together and were known to have a close relationship. The evening of the beating, the two had gotten seriously drunk after they had attended Lowe’s stepmother’s funeral.
Lowe reported that he had fallen asleep that night and had no memory of anything until he discovered his father dead on their driveway the next morning. The investigation revealed that the assault spanned three floors of the home, and that Edward had 90 distinct injuries.
The jury found Lowe not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was detained under a hospital order.
The three people identified above are the exception, as most people who try to use the automatism defense are unsuccessful. One notable murder, where the facts are (at least to me) as compelling as some of those where the killer was acquitted, happened in California in 2001.
After a night of drinking, cocaine and fun in a hotel room on Catalina Island, Stephen Otto Reitz, age 25, awoke and found his girlfriend, Eva Marie Weinfurtner, dead from several stab wounds to the back of her neck. When reporting the death to the police, he noted that although he had no memory of attacking her (he did have a dream of struggling with an attacker), the knife wounds to Eva were similar to those he used in his work (he was a shark fisherman).
At his trial, it was revealed that Reitz, who was bi-polar, had forgotten his medication, but took some anti-anxiety medicine Eva had given him. In addition, he had a history of sleepwalking, and a later investigation at a sleep clinic showed not only that he suffered from sleepwalking, but night terrors as well. Regardless, he was convicted and sentenced to at least 26 years in prison.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
- The First Person to Use the Temporary Insanity Defense was a Congressman Who Murdered the Son of the Composer of “The Star Spangled Banner”
- Why Do We Need Sleep?
- What Causes Dark Circles Under Your Eyes?
- What Causes Arms, Legs, and Feet to “Fall Asleep”
- What the “Sleep” In Your Eyes Is
Tips for Preventing Sleepwalking
Experts note there are several somnambulism triggers that sleepwalkers (you know who you are) should avoid:
- Sleep deprivation
- Physical stress
- Emotional stress
- Alcohol, sedatives and other drugs
Tips for Dealing with a Sleepwalker
There are a few simple dos and don’ts to remember when you are faced with a sleepwalker:
- Gently try to guide them to their bedroom
- Never force them physically
- Stay near and help them avoid danger
- Wake them only if necessary, and then only by loud noises – don’t shake them! While there is no inherent danger to waking a sleepwalker, they do sometimes lash out or become violent when you forcibly try to wake them.
- Can you really sleepwalk into crime?
- The Case of the Sleepwalking Killer
- Case Studies Sleepwalking
- Curious Case of Kenneth Parks
- Edgar Huntly and Real Cases of Sleepwalking Murderers
- How to Wake and Stop a Sleepwalker
- Man Cleared of Sleepwalker Murder
- Fact or Fiction: You Should Never Wake a Sleepwalker
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