Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: Sleepwalking defense has precedent

Reading news accounts of Joseph Mitchell’s sleepwalking trial, which acquitted the Durham father in the death of his 4-year-old son, brought to mind Act 5 of “Macbeth.” Not surprisingly, Shakespeare reveals a deep understanding of sonambulism, if not its cause.

Seeing Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, a doctor and a gentlewoman exchange observations about her otherworldy demeanor:

Doctor: You see, her eyes are open.

Gentlewoman: Aye, but their sense is shut.

That sums up much of what we know about sleepwalking. There is no general agreement on how it occurs, though we do know that it manifests itself more in young people than in the elderly. And it is linked to severe stress and lack of sleep.

On that fatal night in September 2010, Joseph Mitchell strangled his son and attempted to kill two of his siblings. He was awash in stress, fearing he was about to lose his house to foreclosure. And he was grossly deficient in sleep.

Mitchell’s acquittal flew under the media radar. It deserved more attention, because defense attorney Jay Ferguson pulled off one of the rarest of legal victories: He convinced the jury that Mitchell’s sleepwalking shielded him against prosecution for homicide.

You might believe that. Others do not. But the fact is, only Joseph Mitchell knows – or does he?

Nonetheless, sleepwalking is as real as sleeptalking, and for centuries it was believed that a sleepwalker knew what he or she was doing. Sleepwalking was a desperate resort to spare killers from the gallows, and it almost never worked.

In 1846, however, one Albert Tirrell was acquitted in the cutthroat murder of a Boston prostitute. His lawyer invoked the sleepwalking defense – and the jury bought it.

Tirrell’s was the first successful use of the sleepwalking defense in this country. The worldwide total of sleepwalking acquittals is thought to be around 80.

But Tirrell’s eyes-wide-shut defense pales beside that of Kenneth Parks, a Canadian acquitted in 1987 in the killing of his mother-in-law. According to testimony, the sleepwalking Parks drove 14 miles to his in-laws’ home, killing the wife with a tire iron and choking the husband until he passed out. He stabbed both repeatedly, then drove to a police station.

Did Parks know what he was doing? No, said the jury, which was astonished to learn that Parks was unaware that he had cut the tendons in both of his hands during the attacks.

Mitchell, Tirrell, Parks. Killers all, thanks to physical and psychological factors that fused for a short time (sleepwalking rarely lasts beyond 30 minutes) and which presumably left no memory of the event in the minds of the perpetrators.

Somehow, a sleepwalker’s mind seems to split into two states, one autonomous enough to perform many of the actions of the waking self, the other oblivious to the consequences of those actions.

It seems contradictory to us, but not to a sleepwalker who is conscious but not quite conscious – wandering between the winds, so to speak.

Neurological science looks for an explanation, but so far has come up with little beyond evidence that sleepwalking arises during the deepest cycle of non-rapid eye movement sleep. The brain short-circuits itself by attempting to achieve the waking state without going through the full sleep cycle. The result is a sleepwalker.

And on rare occasions, tragedy. Sleepwalker Joseph Mitchell upended his life. No one trusts him, his son is dead by his own hand, his surviving children fear him, his marriage is in shreds.

Sleepwalking is a great perturbation in nature, opined the good doctor. Aye, and who defines this mystery better, even today?