Sleeping Killers

About a year ago, I became involved in the strangest case of my career. The defendant was accused of committing a class A Felony and faced 25 to life in prison. He took himself to the police station and told them he only recalled partying the night before, going to bed and having some wild dreams. Witnesses described horrible actions. This guy cried to the cops, said he didn’t remember. He cried to me, said he didn’t remember. I think the investigator believed him. So did I.

My investigation revolved around parasomnia AKA, sleepwalking. I spoke to a leading Professor from the University of Rochester Sleep & Neurophysiology Research Lab. He explained that there is absolutely no doubt that people do things while they are asleep. Scientists can tell whether or not a person is asleep by the electrical currents their brains produce. Sometimes people will sleepwalk, sleepeat or sleeptalk right before their eyes in the lab. Obviously most subconscious activities occur at home and the bed partner is the most likely to know about it. Aggravating factors include:

  • Stress
  • Alcohol
  • Lack of rest
  • Genetics


Sleepwalking can be a defense in a criminal case because the law requires that a person have some level of control over an action if they are to be held accountable for it. Most law students learn about Albert Tirrell, the first person to use the sleepwalking defense.

Tirrell stabbed a prostitute and burned the brothel, in 1845. His defense was that he was asleep and that he didn’t chose to kill her. He was acquitted of Murder and Arson. Ever since the Tirrell verdict, the sleepwalking defenses have trickled in. Simon Fraser was quickly acquitted for killing his toddler son, who slept in his bedroom along with his wife in 1870. The defense won twice in the 1980s in Arizona for men killing their spouses.

The most famous sleepwalking defense is from Toronto. Kenneth Parks was lost his job and fell asleep on the couch after he hadn’t slept in days. A few hours later, he drove nearly twenty minutes to his in-laws’ home, where he strangled and choked them. He awoke on the drive home, confused. He drove to the police station covered in blood, and reported he didn’t know where it was from. Kenneth Parks was also found not guilty of Murder.

There are also many cases in which the sleepwalking defense was not successful. One significant distinction seems to be a lack of motive when the defense is successful. In my case, the scientist reported that my client did exhibit signs of potential for sleepwalking during his sleep analysis. He agreed to testify that it was possible my client was asleep. I presented the evidence of expert opinion to the prosecutor and the defendant, facing life in prison, was offered probation. He accepted the offer, which is a topic for another day. Contact my Rochester criminal defense office now to learn more about the different types of defense strategies that may be useful in your own case.



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