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‘Sexsomniacs’ and night terrors that kill…where does responsibility end?

Monday, December 7, 2009
posted by Rita Handrich

sleep terrorsWe’ve heard the ‘tired’ jokes about sleep-talking and not being responsible for what you say when you are asleep. But are you responsible for what you DO while you’re asleep? Not according to some recent court cases that have hit the media.

There is the “devoted husband” of forty years killed his wife by strangulation while in the throes of a dream about fighting off intruders. Three psychologists testified that he was not responsible for his actions and the judge agreed. Brian Thomas had apparently had “night terrors” for about fifty years without ever being treated. (His condition was confirmed during ten months spent in prison.) At home, he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms but shared a double bed while camping in a campervan. “There is nothing that he has to feel guilty about—it is just all so tragic” said a neighbor.

On a different note, we have the ‘sexsomniac’ case. In this trial, a woman woke up and found “a strange man lying on top of her, engaged in sexual intercourse”. There is no mention of rape—the man was simply “engaged in sexual intercourse”. Even evidence that he had been up all night the day before, used magic mushrooms and then had more than 16 drinks at a party prior to “engaging in sexual intercourse”—had no impact on the verdict. “The combination of the intoxicants and his sleep disorder brought on the illness” said his attorney who also said it was a “very unusual case and a very unusual diagnosis”. Jan Luedecke was determined to be of “no significant threat to the community” and freed. He was, after all, asleep. His relapse prevention program involves stress reduction, a maximum of 2 alcoholic drinks per week, getting 8 hours of sleep per night, not to stay up late or go to late parties, and to not fall asleep at parties.

David DiSalvo at Brainspin blog wonders if sleepwalking is the next insanity defense and lists a number of other cases where an “I was asleep” defense was used and only infrequently succeeded. He opines that whether a murder is explained by a sleep disorder (even a severe one) is debatable at best.

These are the sorts of cases that jurors find tough to swallow and frankly, we understand why. It is intriguing that all these cases (the two described here and the four in Disalvo’s blog post) involve men who killed or assaulted women. It is curious that apparently the sleep disorders of women are not severe enough to result in murderous behavior. Absolving someone of murder due to a sleep disorder assumes we know much more about the brain than we actually do know.

Sleep disorders are neurologically based and so this could be categorized in with the “my brain made me do it” defenses. There simply is not a solid test as of yet for identification of sleep disorders and certainly not one to determine which sleep disorders are severe enough to explain murder.

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