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Homicidal sleepwalking, also known as homicidal somnambulism or sleepwalking murder, is the act of killing someone during an episode of sleepwalking. In a few cases, sleepwalkers kill people, usually a family member, during their sleepwalking act. There have been several rare cases in which an alleged act of homicide has occurred, and the prime suspect may have committed the act while sleepwalking. The veracity of recorded cases is disputed. About 68 cases had been reported in literature up to the year 2005.
- 1 Cases
- 2 Causes
- 3 In Fiction
- 4 See also
- 5 References
Polish physician Jan Jonston reported a case which occurred around 1630 where an inhabitant of Paris while asleep got up, took his sword, swam across the river Seine and killed a man he had planned to murder the day before. After that, he crossed back the river to his home, eventually getting to his bed, without awaking.
Sergeant Willis Boshears was an US serviceman based in the UK. He confessed to strangling local woman Jean Constable in the early hours of New Years Day 1961 but claimed he was asleep and only woke to realise what he had done. The following day, Boshears disposed of the body in an isolated lane. Several days later he was arrested and charged with murder. At his trial in February 1961 at the Essex Assizes he pleaded not guilty on the basis of being asleep at the time he committed the offence and was acquitted.
In 1987, Kenneth James Parks was a married 23-year-old man with a 5-month-old daughter. He had a very close relationship to his in-laws, with his 42-year-old mother-in-law Barbara Ann Woods referring to him as "her gentle giant." The summer before the controversial events, he developed a gambling problem and fell into deep financial problems. To cover his losses, he took funds from his family's savings and then began to embezzle at work. Eventually, in March 1987, his actions were discovered, and he was fired from his job. On May 20, he went to his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting. He made plans to tell his grandmother the following Saturday (May 23) and his in-laws on Sunday (May 24) about his gambling problems and financial difficulties.
In the early morning hours of May 23, 1987, Parks reportedly got up from his bed, still asleep, drove roughly 23 km to his in-laws' home and broke in, assaulted his father-in-law, Dennis Woods, and stabbed his mother-in-law to death. After all this, he managed to drive himself to the police station. Aside from a few isolated events, the next thing he could recall was being at the police station asking for help, saying “I think I have killed some people…my hands.”
Parks’s only defence was that he was asleep during the entire incident and was not aware of what he was doing. Naturally, nobody believed it; even sleep specialists were extremely skeptical. However, after careful investigation, the specialists could find no other explanation. Parks’ EEG readings were highly irregular even for a parasomniac. This combined with the facts that there was no motive, that he was amazingly consistent in his stories for more than seven interviews despite repeated attempts of trying to lead him astray, that the timing of the events fit perfectly with the proposed explanation, and that there is no way to fake EEG results, led to a jury acquitting Parks of the murder of his mother-in-law and the attempted murder of his father-in-law. The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the acquittal in the 1992 decision R. v. Parks.
- all information was taken from a study conducted by R. Broughton, et al.
In 1997, Scott Falater of Phoenix, Arizona was accused of murdering his wife of 20 years Yarmila (née Klesken) by stabbing her 44 times on the night of January 16, 1997. According to an eyewitness, Falater was also seen holding his wife’s head under water. When he was tried, the prosecution claimed that after the murder had been committed, Falater changed his clothes, put the murder weapon in a Tupperware container, put the container in a trash bag with his boots and socks, stashed the bag in the spare tire well in the trunk of his car, and took and hid all the items that showed that he was the person who killed her. On June 18, 1999 a prosecution expert testified that that Falater's actions were "too complex" to have been carried out while sleepwalking. Four weeks later, Scott Falater was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole.
On October 30, 2004, the body of 83-year-old Edward Lowe was found on his driveway in Manchester, England. His son, Jules, admitted that he caused his father's death, but did not remember committing the act. He has used "automatism" as his defense. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and detained at Her Majesty's pleasure (that is, indefinitely) in a secure hospital. He was released after ten months.
Cases from the Book of Lists 3
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In the Book of Lists 3 there is a list of eight people who were recorded as having killed in their sleep, including use of firearms, fighting, or mishandling infants. Their names were "A. F." (only his initials were recorded), Willis Boshears, Simon Fraser, Wasyl Gnypiuk, Esther Griggs, Jo Ann Kiger, Robert Ledru, and William Pollard. (Contributor to The Book of Lists 3: John M. B. Edwards.)
"A. F. " was a gun fancier and a hunter, and kept loaded firearms in his room. His father, with similar interests, slept in the adjoining room. Hearing a bump against the connecting door early one morning, "A.F.", still asleep, hollered "You dog, what do you want here?" and fired the gun nearest to his reach. The intruder turned out to be his father.
Simon Fraser, of Glasgow, Scotland, often dreamed that a beast had invaded his home at night. One time, he dreamed that a white beast had come up through the floor. He seized it and dashed it to the ground. He woke up to find he had killed his infant son. This episode was probably a night terror, with or without sleepwalking. (Walker, 1968)
Wasyl Gnypiuk, a Polish immigrant (to England) had suffered Nazi internment, which caused him to have nightmares; in one of these, he dreamed of fighting back. In fact, he was in the home of his landlady, and when he woke up it turned out he had beaten her to death.
He was found guilty of capital murder, sentenced to death and hanged at Lincoln on January 27, 1961.
Esther Griggs, resident of London and a mother of three, dreamt one night her house was on fire. Screaming "save my children!" though asleep, Ms. Griggs threw her baby into the street. This episode was probably a night terror, with or without sleepwalking. (Walker, 1968)
Jo Ann Kiger, a teenager, was asleep when she took a revolver in each hand, poised to defend her family against a "monster." She fired, and fatally shot her brother and her father.
—she was not found guilty
In the 1880s, Robert Ledru (†1937), a French police detective, was asked to investigate the murder of Andre Monet on the beach at Le Havre. Examining the evidence—the fatal bullet and some footprints—he decides he had been sleepwalking on the beach and fired the fatal shot. He turned himself in.
Frederick Oughton's novel The Two Lives of Robert Ledru is based on the case.
William Pollard was a farmer whose neighbors knew him well as a sleepwalker and sleepworker—doing his chicken-farm chores while fast asleep. One night he dreamt he was fighting with a marauding stranger. When his wife awakened him, he found he had killed their daughter.
The volume says how the law dealt with them, adding that Western law recognizes sleepwalking as a defense but is otherwise not consistent. "Griggs was charged but the grand jury refused to hand down an indictment; Pollard were never charged; 'A. F.,' Kiger, and Boshears were acquitted; Fraser was not formally acquitted but the court adjourned and then deserted the diet simpliciter, Ledru was acquitted and both were ordered by the court to sleep henceforth only by themselves, in locked rooms; while Gnypiuk, denied an appeal to the House of Lords Appellate Committee, was hanged."
Sleepwalking and other forms of disorders of arousal occur from deep non-REM slow wave sleep (SWS). There are parasomnias that occur from rapid eye movement sleep. It is caused by an inappropriate physiological event where the brain tries to exit SWS and go straight to wake. In normal sleep, the brain transitions from sleep either from stages 1 or 2 of NREM or REM sleep, but almost never from SWS. As a result, the brain gets “stuck” between a sleep and wake state. In the case of Kenneth Parks, his EEG showed that his brain tries to wake from SWS 10 to 20 times a night. Needless to say, this is an incredible number compared to normal sleepers who almost never experience this. Nobody is sure why some people will commit murders in their sleepwalking episodes, but it seems reasonable to assume that many conditions must be met. Using Kenneth Parks as an example again, he was planning to go to his in-laws’ residence the next day, he was stressed and depressed from marital and financial troubles, and he had been sleep deprived because he couldn’t get any sleep the night before.
In the first season of the Perry Mason TV series, one episode was titled "The Case of the Sleepwalker's Niece."
The thriller In My Sleep depicts a character who believes he may have murdered a good friend while sleepwalking. The movie was inspired by real life cases.
The 1971 Italian thriller A Lizard in a Woman's Skin involves a woman who thinks she may have murdered a neighbor in her sleep.
The 1997 TV movie The Sleepwalker Killing depicts a story in which a man kills his mother-in-law and wounds his father-in-law in the middle of the night, then turns himself in.
The plot of the 2013 thriller Side Effects focuses on a woman who allegedly kills her husband while sleepwalking due to a side effect of the medication she is taking.
Walker, N, (1968) Crime and Insanity in England Volume One: The Historical Perspective’, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- BBC NEWS | UK | How sleepwalking can lead to killing
- Jan Jonston, Thaumatographia Naturalis, Amsterdam, 1630 cited in J.A.S. Collin de Plancy, Dictionnaire Infernal, Paris, Mongie, 1818
- Law Gasette http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/1649.articlepublisher=The Law Gasette. Missing or empty
- Essex Murders Paul Donnelley (Wharncliffe Books, 2000)
- Broughton et al. Homicidal Somnambulism: A Case Report. Sleep (1994); 17(3):253-64
- Martin, Lawrence. Can sleepwalking be a murder defense? 26 Apr. 2008. <http://www.lakesidepress.com/pulmonary/Sleep/sleep-murder.htm>.
- BBC NEWS | UK | England | Manchester | 'Sleepwalker' accused of murder
- Bassetti et al., Lancet (2000); 356: 484–485
- Broughton et al. Homicidal Somnambulism: A Case Report. Sleep (1994); 17(3):253-64