Barry Saunders

Sleepwalking adults are rare breed

What, no room at the inn for Joseph?

Joseph Mitchell – after being found not guilty of killing his 4-year-old son because a jury concluded that he did it while sleepwalking and was thus not legally responsible – reportedly went to homeless shelters in Durham looking for a place to crash Wednesday night that wasn’t, for the first time in four years, a jail cell.

He was reportedly turned down by them all.

Efforts to reach his attorney, Jay Ferguson, or court officials to confirm that Mitchell was denied a cot were unsuccessful, but if true, who could surprised?

It would take someone of a superhumanly charitable bent to unquestioningly open doors to a man who, just hours earlier, faced life in prison for filicide, killing his child.

Mitchell is down and out and deserves the chance to get on with his life, but mission and shelter officials can be excused if they chose not to endanger the lives of the vulnerable people who avail themselves of their charity. As someone who has crashed at homeless shelters a time or 20, both for stories and because of landlord misunderstandings, I know that the men who inhabit that world have enough problems without worrying about a homicidal somnambulist.

Safety is, for the ragged men in ragged clothes trudging along the streets with all of their possessions in a dirty backpack, a constant worry, anyway. Here’s a paradox: Kris Kristofferson wrote that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” yet veterans of the streets and homeless shelters know that bunking next to the wrong dude can result in losing their lives.

Several weeks ago, during a period when Triangle temperatures were in the 20s for days, I talked to men with nothing left to lose who eschewed the various shelters offering them heat, food and shelter. They preferred instead the peace and freedom that comes from being outdoors.

Incomprehensible, right?

Not really, not if the choice is between sleeping outside and thus possibly waking up as a popsicle – or sleeping inside but possibly not waking up at all because you lay down next to the wrong person.

Sleepwalking, to the dismay of many, does appear to be a legitimate defense in criminal cases. Dr. Rosalind Cartwright, a sleep researcher who has for decades studied sleepwalking and people who commit heinous acts while supposedly doing it, acknowledged that “there is a heck of a lot of skepticism” anytime someone uses it as a criminal defense.

That’s why Cartwright, an author who received the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Sleep Research Society and served 30 years as chair of the Department of Psychology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said she has testified in very few such cases. “I sort out carefully the ones I think are real,” she said, “and the ones I think are phony.”

She said she was “astounded” when I told her there was reportedly no court-ordered treatment Mitchell must undergo, that he was turned loose without even a “go and sin no more.” That means that the same condition that made him kill one child and try to kill his other two children could, theoretically, be lying dormant, ready to raise its head the minute he lays down his.

Mitchell’s defense attorney said his client’s problems resulted from sleep deprivation and financial stress.

Just about everyone we know can lay claim to one or both of those factors, yet Cartwright, who has testified for the prosecution (once) and the defense (a handful of times) in sleepwalking-crime trials said “Stress is definitely a trigger for someone who’s neurologically vulnerable. ... (Sleepwalking) is mainly prevalent in young children. To have a middle-aged man with a sleepwalking disorder is a rare beast.

“It happens,” she said.

A rare beast. Sister, you said a mouthful.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

  Comments