To Sleep, Perchance To…Murder?

By Nicole Rowlands

Think of the oddest thing you’ve ever done in your sleep. Perhaps you’ve murmured. Babbled. Yelled. Maybe you’ve even sleepwalked.

But I bet you didn’t climb a 13-story crane like a teenage girl did in London in 2005, only to be found later curled up fast asleep on the crane by a passerby. And you probably didn’t jump out of a four-story building – found hours later still sleeping. Even a broken arm and leg didn’t wake up this 17-year-old boy from Demmin, Germany. And I know you never had “sleep sex” like the middle-aged married woman in Australia in 2004 who frequently left her home and had sex with random strangers. (I’m not sure this woman was really sleeping, actually, but her husband seemed to believe her).

Destructive and unpredictable behavior has been known to happen during an otherwise good night’s rest. Take homicidal somnambulism, for example, the medical term for committing or attempting to commit murder in one’s sleep.

A recent film, “Side Effects”, directed by Steven Soderbergh, centers on a woman who kills her husband while sleepwalking, in an apparent reaction to a medication she was prescribed by her psychiatrist.

Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara) and her husband Martin (played by Channing Tatum) are finally reunited after his four-year prison term for insider trading. But things are not the same as they were before his arrest. Whereas Emily is seen in flashbacks as playful and full of life, she is now listless and depressed. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (played by Jude Law) prescribes Zoloft but when that doesn’t work, he proposes a new antidepressant, Ablixa (that only exists for the purposes of the film). Her life (and sex life) are clearly reinvigorated, and though she has some episodes of sleepwalking, it’s nothing that Dr. Banks is too concerned about.

Until Emily stabs her husband while in her sleep.

That people commit murder in their sleep – and then get away with it at trial – is discussed as fact in the film.  Is that true?  LASIS investigated and found: it sure is.

The first documented sleepwalking defense for murder in the United States was in Weymouth, MA in 1864. Albert Tirrell was on trial for murder after he slit a woman’s throat, almost decapitating her. Mr. Tirrell’s attorney claimed that his client was a chronic sleepwalker who could have murdered the woman “under the influence of a nightmare or a trance.” Family members offered testimony backing up Mr. Tirrell’s habit and violence while sleepwalking, and in less than two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

In 1981 Steven Steinberg of Scottsdale Arizona stabbed his wife with a kitchen knife 26 times ultimately causing her death. During his trial Mr. Steinberg claimed that he had been sleepwalking, and therefore should not be held responsible. The jury agreed, finding that he’d been “temporarily insane” in his sleep. Mr. Steinberg walked away a free man.

But using a sleepwalking defense does not guarantee a not guilty verdict.

In 2001 Eva Marie Weinfurtner was beaten and stabbed to death by her boyfriend, Stephen Otto Reitz. while they were on Catalina Island for a weekend getaway. Mr. Reitz claimed he was sleeping when he had smashed a flowerpot against Ms. Weinfurtner’s head, dislocated her elbow and wrist, and stabbed her four times in the back of the neck with a pocketknife. Even though he had a history of sleepwalking and some testing at a sleep clinic revealed not only a tendency to sleepwalk but also significant night terror, he was sentenced to 26 years to life in prison.

I’m not going to ruin “Side Effects” for you.  There are lots of plot twists and the film is actually pretty good.  And at least on this one issue, the law was explained correctly. People have been acquitted for murdering in their sleep.  As for Emily Taylor…



6 Responses

  1. Karamer says:

    So cool you wrote this article. I saw the movie and assumed the cases they discussed were bogus. Good to know.

  2. Sarah says:

    Really interesting article. I would love to know why Reitz didn’t get acquitted when the prior two cases did. I kind of wish there had been a little of bit discussion as to the difference that time or facts have on the defense of sleepwalking to the accusation of the commission of a violent crime. But great article!

  3. Art says:

    I saw the movie a few weeks ago. In the end, I thought it didn’t play fair with the audience, finding the plot twists incredible. But I was intrigued at the idea that somebody could murder in their sleep and possibly get away with it based on lack of intent. Interesting discussion!

  4. Inez says:

    @Sarah – THere was no difference in facts for Reitz that would have pointed to a conviction instead of an acquittal. It all depends on the jury. Basically, someone is murdered. So it’s more of a surprise when someone is acquitted.

  5. Jenn says:

    I recently saw the NBC Dateline episode about the Reitz sleepwalking defense/muder case. The entire time I was watching I was thinking to myself…it is entirely possible and plausible that he did this in his sleep. I have suffered my entire life, since childhood (and I’m almost 40 now) of sleepwalking, doing tasks while sleeping, and having night terrors that CATAPULT me out of bed thinking an intruder is attacking me, and I have thrashed around violently, entire body, arms, fists, legs everything- “fighting for my life” against an imaginary person, and not even remembered it…..

  6. baylady says:

    I think a huge contributing factor in his being found guilty were the previous incidents of violence against Eva when he was very much awake.

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