A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

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…

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