How can you tell whether someone was asleep when he committed murder?

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Nov. 30 2009 1:27 PM

"Rough Night?"

How do you know whether someone was asleep when he strangled his wife?

How is it possible to commit a violent crime while sleeping? Click image to expand.
How is it possible to commit a violent crime while sleeping?

British prosecutors withdrew charges last week against Brian Thomas, a 59-year-old retired steelworker from Wales who strangled his wife to death as she slept in their camper van. Thomas claimed he was also asleep during the attack and imagined he was fighting off an intruder. Sleep experts believed him. How did they know he was telling the truth?

They watched him sleep, for starters. To determine whether someone suffers from a sleep-arousal disorder, or parasomnia, researchers often videotape the person in an attempt to record a mid-slumber episode. They also use a polysomnograph, which monitors several bodily functions, including breathing, eye movements, and brain-wave patterns. It's thought that homicidal somnambulism—killing someone while you're asleep—is related to night terrors. Both usually occur in the first two hours after someone has nodded off, during deep, slow-wave sleep. Dreams and nightmares, which are far more common than night terrors, occur during the lighter, REM stage of sleep—when people tend to be silent and immobile. It's a distinction lost on British tabloids, which dubbed Thomas "Dream Killer Dad."

Actually observing someone sleepwalking or experiencing night terrors in a laboratory is somewhat rare. Often, the episodes are brought on by a confluence of factors, like stress and sleep deprivation. Which is why one researcher argues for depriving the accused of sleep for 36 hours to see whether this triggers the behavior. But even if you do manage to get someone to sleepwalk in a laboratory, that doesn't prove that the person is potentially violent. To do that, researchers say, you need to provoke the sleepwalker during an episode—by touching him, for example, to see whether this prompts an aggressive response. That can be risky for all involved.

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Thomas' story made sense, given what is known about sleep violence and night terrors. He was under stress just before going to bed. Several young men—British newspapers called them "boy racers"—had been driving their cars recklessly near where Thomas and his wife had parked their van. He says that when he was strangling his wife, he imagined he was defending her from the boy racers. The strangulation happened soon after they went to sleep. Finally, Thomas had a lifelong history of sleepwalking.

The evidence isn't always so compelling. In 1997, an Arizona engineer, Scott Falater, stabbed his wife 44 times before holding her head underwater in the family's swimming pool. He, too, claimed to have been asleep during the attack, and at least one sleep researcher who testified at the trial believed it was possible. Other experts, however, questioned whether his behavior, which included putting on gloves before pushing his wife into the pool, was too sophisticated for a sleepwalker. The jury didn't buy the defense's claim, and Falater is currently serving a life sentence. Similar questions were raised in the case of Kenneth Parks, an unemployed Canadian man who got up in the night, drove to his in-laws' house, and viciously attacked them with a tire iron. In that case, though, sleep experts and the jury believed that he really was asleep during the episode. His story was turned into the TV movie The Sleepwalker Killing, starring Hilary Swank as Parks' wife. *

Those who attempt to fake a sleepwalking defense sometimes get tripped up by recalling too many details about the murder. Normally, somnambulistic killers are confused and can't remember what happened. This was true of the deeply distraught Thomas, who told police, "I love her. What have I done? She's my world."

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Explainer thanks Mark R. Pressman of Lankenau and Paoli Hospitals.

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Correction, Nov. 24, 2009: This article originally misspelled Hilary Swank's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Tom Bartlett is a writer in Mount Rainier, Md.

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