referred to above, of a man who shot his wife and then claimed he did it on an
arousal from sleep apnea (and therefore not under willful control), is well
summarized in a medical article from the journal Sleep: Homicidal
behavior and sleep apnea: a case report and medicolegal discussion. Sleep
1995;18:776-82. In that case the defendant suffered from respiratory
failure, sleep apnea and obesity. He did not sleepwalk.
Sleep walking appears to be the most frequent sleep disorder invoked as
defense against murder. In three of the four cases discussed above, the claimant
was acquitted of the crime, and in two he walked free - free even of the stigma
of being declared insane. In the fourth, the assault case from Australia, sleep
walking was declared not normal and therefore a disease of the mind, i.e., the
defendant was insane.
Clearly the outcome in an individual case will depend on the details, the
jurisdiction, the expert testimony, and other imponderables. Four questions to
be asked and answered in any individual case are:
1. Did the defendant commit the crime? To have a
sleepwalking defense, the answer must of course be yes. Go to No. 2.
2. Was the defendant sleepwalking at the time? This answer will depend on a) the defendant's own testimony and b)
testimony of the experts. If the answer is Yes, go to No. 3. (If no, it is not a
3. Is the defendant sane at the time of trial? If
the answer is yes, go to No. 4. If no, the defense is likely based on a 'not
guilty by reason of insanity' plea. Sleepwalking would be additive to the main
plea but not the principal defense. At this point it is established that the
defendant committed the act, that he was sleepwalking at the time, and that he
is sane at the time of trial.
4. Should the defendant go free, go to a mental hospital,
or go to jail? Everything presented at court will revolve around one of
these three possible outcomes - the defense wanting mainly the first, the
prosecution wanting mainly the third, and either side perhaps opting for the
middle ground (mental institution) depending on how strong or weak they perceive
their case. Here the answer will depend on:
- details of the crime
- expert testimony
- jury makeup, biases,
education and background
- judges' interpretations of law (particularly at
the appellate level)
Given these variables, anything can happen with a sleepwalking defense.
Stated another way, the same four cases cited above - Steinberg, Parks, Falater,
Burgess - could have each ended differently if tried in a different year, a
different jurisdiction, with a different jury, a different panel of experts, or
before a different group of judges. This observation is not insightful, but
merely a reflection of reality.