In recent BBC news a famous professional horse jockey was found passed out drunk in his car at a gas station in the middle of the night. The English jockey tested over the legal limit for alcohol and has come up with a rather unique defense–he was sleepwalking! Sleepwalking, also called non-insane automatism, is a reasonable defense for a crime in England. It is also a reasonable plea here in the U.S., where attorneys have successfully and unsuccessfully used sleepwalking as a defense since 1846.
What is Sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking is a parasomnia, or sleep disorder, also known as somnambulism. Sleepwalking happens during the delta phase of sleep, as when you are in the REM phase, you cannot move. With children, as their brains are still immature, sleepwalking is common. But only 1% of adults, mostly men, still have sleepwalking episodes. If someone with a history of sleepwalking drinks alcohol and or takes sleeping pills before bed this will most likely trigger an episode.
Most sleepwalking is harmless–someone will yell or talk and perhaps get up and wander around. Usually the person has no memory of it in the morning. In very rare cases, when alcohol or pills is a factor, the sleepwalker can become violent.
Sleepwalking as a Defense
Here in the U.S., lawyers have been using sleepwalking as a murder defense since the case of Massachusetts vs. Tirrel, in 1846. Arthur Tirrel fell in love with a prostitute, Maria Bickford. He left his family to be near to her, begging her to leave the profession, but she refused him. One night he entered the brothel where Maria worked, slit her throat and set three fires to the place. Tirrel’s lawyer brought in several family members to testify to Tirrel’s history of sleepwalking and won the case, even though it wasn’t even yet a diagnosed condition!
Sleepwalking and Ambien
One of the most famous case of sleepwalking and Ambien, a sleeping pill, was with flight attendant Julie Bronson in 2009. She went to sleep one night after drinking wine and taking Ambien and awoke in custody, barefoot and still in her pajamas. She was told that she had run over three people, one of them an 18 month old baby who was suffering from permanent brain damage. “It was a bad dream,” she said. The jury later acquitted her on a manslaughter charge. She got 180 days and community service.
Sleepwalking Failed as a Defense
In 2004 a San Diego man was convicted of killing his girlfriend in their hotel room while on vacation. He had a history of sleepwalking, but admits that night he drank and took cocaine. He threw a flowerpot at her head and cut her throat with a knife. He told the jury that he was dreaming about an intruder being in the room. The jury didn’t buy it and he was declared guilty.
If you suffer from sleepwalking on occasion, it’s really not a big deal for anyone except the people that live with you. Also, if you drink heavily, know that alcohol interacts with somnambulism to make it worse while you’re under the influence. Mixing sleeping pills with alcohol is never, ever a good idea, whether you are a sleepwalker or not. This combination of drugs with someone who already sleepwalks is potentially lethal to them and the people around them. Sleepwalking can be used as a defense, but if someone takes sleeping pills and drinks, knowing they have this condition, it shows their own lack of precaution.