Homicidal sleepwalking

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"The Boston Tragedy," the murder of Maria Bickford, 1846; Tirrell was acquitted because of "sleepwalking." National Police Gazette, 1846

Homicidal sleepwalking, also known as homicidal somnambulism or sleepwalking murder, is the act of killing someone during an episode of sleepwalking. There have been some cases in which an act of homicide has occurred and the prime suspect may have committed the act while sleepwalking. The veracity of recorded cases is disputed. About 69 cases had been reported in the literature up to the year 2005.[citation needed] One such case is that of Kenneth Parks, who was acquitted of the murder of his mother-in-law in 1987 after using the sleepwalking defense.[1]


Sleepwalking occurs during slow-wave sleep (SWS), the deepest stages of non-REM sleep,[2] while there are other parasomnias that occur from REM 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 makes the transition 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.[3] In the case of Kenneth Parks, his EEG showed an abnormality where his brain tried to wake from SWS 10 to 20 times a night.[4] It remains unknown why some people will commit murders in their sleepwalking episodes, but it seems reasonable to assume that many conditions must be met. Kenneth Parks, for example, was planning to go to his in-laws’ residence the next day, he was stressed and depressed from his marital and financial troubles, and he had been sleep deprived because he could get no sleep the night before.[5]

Notable cases[edit]

Boshears case[edit]

Sergeant Willis Boshears was a US serviceman based in the UK. He confessed to strangling a local woman named Jean Constable in the early hours on New Years Day 1961, but claimed that he was asleep and only woke to realize 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 pled not guilty on the basis of being asleep at the time he committed the offence and was acquitted.[6][7]

Parks case[edit]

In 1987, Kenneth James Parks was a married 23-year-old Canadian 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.

Early on the morning of May 24, 1987, Kenneth Parks drove 20 kilometres from Pickering, Ontario, to the house of his in-laws in Scarborough, Ontario. He entered their house with a key they had previously given him and used a tire iron to bludgeon his mother-in-law to death. He then turned on his father-in-law, attempting to choke him to death, but the man managed to survive the attack. He got back in his car and, despite being covered with blood, drove straight to a nearby police station and confessed, turning himself in, stating, "I think I have just killed two people."[8]

Parks' 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,[citation needed] 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 falsify 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.[5]

Some doctors believe Parks should have been found to be not guilty by reason of insanity instead.[9]

Nieto case[edit]

Antonio Nieto, 58, a resident of Málaga, Spain, murdered his wife and mother in law using an axe and a hammer on January 11, 2001. Nieto's daughter suffered a jaw fracture but was left alone after feigning death, and his son disarmed him after receiving a cut on the ear. Nieto claimed to have been asleep during the attack and dreaming that he was defending himself against aggressive ostriches. However, his children stated that he had recognized them and had even told his son to not turn on the lights because their mother (gravely injured already) was sleeping. In 2007 Nieto (already under psychiatric treatment) was sentenced to 10 years internment in a psychiatric hospital and ordered to pay 171,100 euros as compensation to the victims.[10]

Lowe case[edit]

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 and 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.[11] He was released after ten months.

Brian Thomas case[edit]

Brian Thomas, 59, who suffered from automatism and sleepwalking since he was a child, confessed to strangling his 57-year old wife, Christine, in July 2008 in their camper van while on vacation. He called emergency services, and was heard telling the operator, "What have I done? I've been trying to wake her. I think I've killed my wife. Oh my God. I thought someone had broken in. I was fighting with those boys but it was Christine. I must have been dreaming or something. What have I done?..."[12] He claimed he had mistaken his wife for an intruder, waking up to find it was his wife. He was freed in 2009 by a judge, who found him not guilty of murder.[13][14]

In fiction[edit]

Television depictions[edit]

In the first season of the Perry Mason TV series, one episode was titled "The Case of the Sleepwalker's Niece."

The episode "Dreamcatchers," in the fifth season of the TV series Teen Wolf, dealt with this.

In the episode of Criminal Minds titled "In the Dark," a serial killer suffers from this illness, killing multiple people during the night.

Movie depictions[edit]

The 1920 German horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari centers upon a series of murders committed by a somnambulist under control of the eponymous Dr. Caligari.

The 1932 American gentlemen jewel thief romantic heist comedy Arsene Lupin features numerous depictions of somnambulism, specifically sleepwalking both real and faked by various characters.

The 1971 Italian thriller A Lizard in a Woman's Skin involves a woman who thinks she may have murdered a neighbour 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 2010 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 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.

See also[edit]


Walker, N., Crime and Insanity in England Volume One: The Historical Perspective, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (1968)

  1. ^ "BBC News - The science of defending sleepwalkers that kill". news.bbc.co.uk. 2010-03-25. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  2. ^ Popat, Shreeya; Winslade, William “While You Were Sleepwalking: Science and Neurobiology of Sleep Disorders & the Enigma of Legal Responsibility of Violence During Parasomnia”: Neuroethics (2015); 8(2): 203–214.
  3. ^ Bassetti et al., Lancet (2000); 356: 484–485
  4. ^ Eagleman, David (2011). Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Canongate Books. pp. 132–136. ISBN 9780857860477.
  5. ^ a b Broughton et al. Homicidal Somnambulism: A Case Report. Sleep (1994); 17(3):253-64
  6. ^ Shearer, Lloyd (October 14, 1961). "He killed in his sleep". Ottawa Citizen.
  7. ^ Essex Murders Paul Donnelley (Wharncliffe Books, 2000)
  8. ^ "Man Acquitted Of Sleepwalking Murder Running For School Trustee In Durham - CityNews Toronto". 27 October 2006.
  9. ^ "Sleep Driving and Sleep Killing".
  10. ^ Resolved to intern 10 years the man that killed his wife and mother in law believing they were ostriches. (Spanish) .<http://www.diariosur.es/20070221/malaga/acuerdan-internar-anos-hombre_200702211843.html>.
  11. ^ "'Sleepwalker' accused of murder". 10 March 2005 – via news.bbc.co.uk.
  12. ^ Morris, Steven (2009-11-20). "Devoted husband Brian Thomas who strangled wife during his sleep walks free from court". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
  13. ^ "'Dream killer' released by judge". BBC. 2009-11-20. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
  14. ^ "Man who killed his wife while sleeping goes free". The Independent. 2009-11-21. Retrieved 2016-05-30.