Sleepwalking murder, also known as homicidal sleepwalking, describes the terrifying event that an individual awakens to discover they have murdered someone while they were sleeping. With no memory of their actions during their slumber, they are left in a dangerous position facing a murder charge with little defense.
According to a study carried out in France in 2013, 58% of the 140 adult sleepwalkers studied displayed violent behavior during their sleep with 31% of violent incidents being towards themselves and 46% toward their partner sleeping next to them. The study carried out by researchers at the Sleep Disorders Center, Hopital-Gui-de-Chuliac in Montpellier also found that those who started sleepwalking at a young age had a higher frequency of violent behaviors causing injuries and, that violent behavior during sleep was often accompanied by sleep terrors.
The Matthew Phelps Case
On 1 September 2017, a perplexing case of alleged homicidal sleepwalking occurred in Raleigh, North Carolina. 28-year-old Matthew Phelps called 911 and told them he had awoken from sleep to find his wife lying on the bedroom floor covered in blood from multiple stab wounds. “I have blood all over me and there’s a bloody knife on the bed. I think I did it. I can’t believe this,” he told the operator, reported the NY Post. His wife, 29-year-old Lauren Ashley-Nicole Phelps, was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital with police immediately arresting Matthew Phelps for her murder.
Phelps claims he took medication for a cold before he went to bed that evening as he was having trouble sleeping, his only explanation he says for what could have made him carry out such a violent attack against his wife. Sword and Scale reported the cold medicine Phelps claimed he took was Coricidin Cough and Cold Tablets, a medication which contains a chemical often used by youngsters to obtain a high.
While the manufacturers say there is no evidence the medication can cause violence as a side effect, the drug does contain ‘dextrometorphan’, a drug that when taken in high doses can produce hallucinations and delusions. Matthew Phelps is an evangelist preacher who married Lauren in 2016. According to the New York Daily News, the autopsy report of Lauren Phelps revealed she had been stabbed 123 times with wounds to her neck, torso, head, and arms. Phelps claimed he had often taken the cold medicine in the past and regularly at more than the recommended dose to help him sleep. He is now awaiting trial for murder where prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against him.
Sleepwalkers have been known to do some pretty strange things; cook, clean, iron…all without being consciously aware they are doing it and having no memory of it in the morning. There have been some cases of accidental death due to sleepwalking, where someone has wandered off inappropriately dressed, or staggered out into passing traffic, all while allegedly fast asleep. Sleepwalking murders account for, luckily, very few of these cases.
Getting enough sleep at good quality is vital to our functioning during waking hours. While many of us take sleep for granted and fall into slumber each night with satisfying regularity, others struggle with sleep disorders ranging from minor inconveniences to serious conditions impacting their quality of life. The National Sleep Foundation reports that between 1% and 15% of the general population sleepwalk on a regular basis. When we go to sleep, we go through various sleep stages ranging from light sleep to deep sleep and finally rapid eye movement (REM) sleep where we tend to dream.
Sleepwalking generally occurs in the phases of deep sleep just before we enter REM sleep where our limbs are temporarily paralyzed to stop us acting out our dreams. It appears that some people are prone to sleepwalking whereas others aren’t and research suggests episodes can be triggered by stress, lack of sleep, medication, and substances such as alcohol.
Also known as homicidal somnambulism, this occurrence is thankfully very rare. However, it has happened with at least 68 cases of sleepwalking murder reaching a courtroom, leaving a jury the task of deciding whether a murder committed while asleep means criminal responsibility for the unfortunate sleepwalker. The sleepwalking state is often referred to as automatism meaning to be acting involuntarily, and this can either be due to mental ill-health (insane automatism) or external factors (non-insane automatism).
Take the court case of Jules Lowe, thought to be the first case of sleepwalking murder of its kind in the United Kingdom where an individual has been tried for murder with a sleepwalking defense. Mr. Lowe was 32-years-old and shared a house with his 83-year-old father. In 2003, his father was found dead in the driveway after suffering a brutal attack.
Mr. Lowe claimed to have no knowledge of what happened to his father and how he had ended up dead on the driveway. With no other evidence to the contrary, he was charged with first-degree murder.
His defense team called in sleep experts who carried out a number of tests to measure his brain waves, muscle, and breathing activity and determined he did fit the profile of a sleepwalker. Furthermore, he had a history of sleepwalking although had never displayed any previous violence and by all accounts had an excellent relationship with his father. By this time, Mr. Lowe had acknowledged he must have been responsible for the murder as no one else was present. It was determined he was in a state of automatism during the murder; that he was not conscious of his actions due to being asleep. He was found not guilty of murder due to insane automatism, meaning he could not legally be held fully responsible for the fatal attack, and he was indefinitely sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Kenneth Parks Case
The Kenneth Parks case provides one of the most curious recorded instances of homicidal sleepwalking. In the middle of the night in May 1997 in Toronto, Canada, 23-year-old Kenneth Parks got in his car and drove to his parents-in-law’s home 14 miles away. He stabbed his mother-in-law to death and assaulted his father-in-law who survived the attack. Parks then drove to the police station and told them he thought he had killed people because there was blood on his hands. His defense team concluded he was sleepwalking at the time of the attacks. As in all other cases, he had a history of sleepwalking and he could not remember any details of the events.
The case report stated that Parks was in a state of non-insane automatism at the time with no previous history of mental ill-health. There was no evidence of psychosis and it was believed a number of factors combined that evening, including stress from his job and periods of insomnia running up to the events, a combination they claimed, extremely unlikely to ever occur again. In May 1988 he was found not guilty of the murder of his mother-in-law and acquitted of the attempted murder of his father-in-law.
Steven Steinberg Case
Steven Steinberg was accused of the murder of his wife Elena Steinberg by stabbing her 26 times in 1981, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Steinberg claimed he was sleepwalking and was not sane at the time of the murder.
Dr. Martin Blinder, a California psychiatrist told the court the repeated stabbing of Elena was due to Steinberg being in a state of ‘dissociative reaction’. Steinberg was found not guilty due to sleepwalking at the time of the offense and he walked free from court. He did not deny killing his wife but claimed the circumstances meant he was not responsible for the murder in a legal sense.
The jury believed the defense of sleepwalking at the time of the murder and therefore, although they knew he had committed the murder, they felt they had no choice but to find him not guilty as he was not consciously aware and rational when he carried it out. Steinberg initially told police an intruder had broken in and killed his wife and only claimed he was sleepwalking when police found evidence linking him to the murder. Although he was found not guilty on the basis of being insane at the time of the murder, he was deemed to be sane at the time of the trial and therefore he was not sent to a psychiatric hospital.
Laws have now changed in Arizona and cases such as this today would mean the individual in question would serve a period of time in a mental institution. If this had been in the UK where sleepwalking murder is classed as an insane state, a period in a mental hospital would usually be the sentence implied however, this is not necessarily the case across the US or in Canada.
The state of automatism has been named a number of times in cases where arousal from sleep has resulted in violence, questioning whether the individual had indeed aroused from sleep or was still sleeping. REM guitarist Peter Buck found himself in such a situation when he attacked a BA staff member on a flight into London in 2002.
Mr. Buck had no memory of the attack and he was diagnosed as being in a state of non-insane automatism (a criminal act committed by a sane person but without intent, malice or awareness and therefore they cannot be held criminally responsible) at the time due to the combination of a sleeping pill and alcohol before the flight took off.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine conducted a review of 32 cases of sleepwalking violence against other individuals. Reported in Science Daily, researchers distinguished between ‘confusional arousals’ where a person is in the process of waking up and is confused as to where they are and what they are doing, and ‘sleep terrors’ or ‘night terrors’ where a person screams out in their sleep. Both of these states they classed as disorders of arousal and found that in all confusional arousal cases and 81% of sleep terror cases they studied, violent behaviors were associated with either provocation from another or simply another person being in close proximity. By provocation they mean another person, most likely a family member, approaching the sleepwalker or maybe making physical contact with them, simple gestures which can trigger a greatly exaggerated and often violent response. Dr. Mark Pressman of Sleep Medicine Services at Lankanau Hospital in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania who authored the study said;
“It is possible that the absence of physical contact or proximity to other individuals is the only factor that distinguishes violent sleepwalkers from nonviolent sleepwalkers. This suggests under the right circumstances that any sleepwalker might respond to a perceived threat or close proximity with violence.”
Scott Falater Case
Probably the most complicated sleepwalking defense case to date is that of Scott Falater. In 1997, Mr. Falater was 43-years-old and found himself accused of murdering his wife. His horrified neighbor saw him put on a pair of gloves and proceed to roll his battered wife into the swimming pool of his home and hold her head under the water.
When the police arrived they found Mrs. Falater dead in the pool with 44 stab wounds and Mr. Falater in his pyjamas, oblivious to what had happened and rather confused as to why there were police all over his backyard. After an extensive police interview where Mr. Falater was told of the fate of his wife, he could offer no explanation for what had happened. Like Lowe and Steinberg, Falater acknowledged he must have committed the murder but claimed he had no memory of it. During a search of the property, police found Mr. Falater’s bloody clothes and shoes and the murder weapon hidden in the spare tire well of his car.
During his trial for first degree murder, the defense claimed Falater was in a period of little sleep due to stress at his job and on the day in question he had removed all the tools from the spare tire space in his car, including the knife that was used in the murder, to fix a faulty pump in the pool.
They said he did not complete the job and went to bed exhausted. When he rose he was sleepwalking and returned to the pool to continue the task, flying into a rage when he was interrupted by his wife. They claimed his illogical actions were typical of someone who was sleepwalking.
“You try to make sense of his actions, the sequence of events. It’s off-center. Trying to hide her body in the pool with the lights on? He’s technically guilty, but he’s morally innocent. He was there, and he wasn’t there.”
Sleep disorder expert, Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, who examined Falater and said it was possible he was sleepwalking at the time of the murder. The prosecution claimed the sleepwalking defense was a fabrication by Falater who cover up his crime stating that his change of clothes and the placing of them along the murder weapon in a container in his car did not support a sleepwalking claim. They maintained that his actions were too complex to have been carried out while asleep.
In June 1999, Mr. Falater was convicted of first-degree murder and in January 2000 was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole.
Although rare, some experts have expressed concern that this type of defense may become more common. Disproving a case of homicidal sleepwalking, as the time of the act has passed, can be very difficult. Sleep monitoring tests can indicate whether someone is prone to sleepwalking. Add that to a history of sleepwalking and you could end up with a reasonable defense for murder. Homicidal sleepwalking is a scary thought, not only for potential victims of such an act but for a sleepwalker who may wake up to untold horror at their own hands. Sleeping, it seems, is much more dangerous than we previously thought.
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2007, August 3). Violent Behaviors That Occur During Sleep Disorders Are Provoked, Study Suggests. Science Daily
- Brogaard, B. (2012) Sleep Driving and Sleep Killing: The Kenneth Parks case. The Superhuman Mind, Psychology Today
- Lopez, R., Jaussent, I., Scholz, S., Bayard, S., Montplaisir, J., and Dauvilliers, Y. (2014) Functional Impairment in Adult Sleepwalkers: A Case-Control Study. Sleep, Vol. 36, Iss. 1, pp345-351
- Martin, L. (2008) Can Sleepwalking Be A Murder Defense? Lakeside Press
- Rubin, P. (1998) A Killer Sleep Disorder. Phoenix New Times
Guy, F. (2017, Nov 27) Homicidal Sleepwalking: To Kill While Asleep. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2017/11/homicidal-sleepwalking/