Longform

A Killer Sleep Disorder

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It worked in an 1878 British case, for example, after a father killed his 18-month-old by throwing him against the wall one evening.

Cases in which alleged sleepwalkers have been acquitted have been well-chronicled. There have been mind-boggling accounts of sleepwalking wives stabbing husbands, of a young girl killing her father and brother, of a boy gravely injuring a young cousin, and so on--all escaped imprisonment.

Some common threads run through those cases: The offender claims no memory of the act, there is no known motive and the sleepwalker has a history of other episodes.

"It's hard to prove someone really was sleepwalking if they've never done it before," says Canada's Meir Kryger. "It's so easy for someone to say, 'I don't remember anything. But it's never happened before and I promise it'll never happen again, blah, blah, blah. Please let me go.' It's hard to imagine that someone, in their first known sleepwalking incident, committed a violent act--which is rare even in established sleepwalkers."

Juries don't readily buy sleepwalking defenses. In 1996, for example, a Pennsylvania man was sentenced to life in prison for shooting his wife in the back. The man showed a history of sleep apnea, but his story collapsed after prosecutors showed that he knew his wife was about to leave him.

Probably the most well-documented sleepwalking murder trial concerned the case of Toronto resident Kenneth Parks. In 1986, Parks drove 14 miles to his in-laws' home and let himself into their house with a key they'd given him. He stabbed and bludgeoned his mother-in-law to death--severing tendons in one of his hands in the process--and choked his father-in-law into unconsciousness. He then drove to a police station and announced, "I think I have just killed two people."

Parks did have a possible motive for murder. A compulsive gambler, he recently had raided his family's savings account and had been caught embezzling from an employer.

Evidence at trial suggested Parks fit the profile of a bona fide sleepwalker: He could show a history of sleepwalking. He was under great stress. He said he remembered little about the fatal night, and his story stayed consistent under a barrage of questioning from police, mental-health experts and attorneys.

Charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder, the 23-year-old Parks relied on his sleep-disorder experts--including Scott Falater's expert, Dr. Roger Broughton--to convince the jury that his defense was genuine.

It was a tall order.
Most people seriously doubt that someone can remain unconscious while physically hurting another person.

"I am absolutely convinced in my own mind that the sleepwalking event occurred with homicide," Broughton told the Parks jury, "and that there is no other medically acceptable interpretation."

The prosecutor asked him during cross-examination, "Can a person perform virtually any sort of act in his sleep?"

"I'm not sure," Broughton replied. ". . . People, in terms of their motor coordination, can at times have quite coordinated activity. People have been found sleepwalking who have gotten up on rooftops and kept their balance and walked along and been totally asleep. It is unusual for sleepwalkers [who] get up and wander around the room to trip over furniture or to hurt themselves."

The jury acquitted Parks. Now on medication, he has not had a reported recurrence of violence, according to a 1997 story in a Toronto newspaper. But Parks' wife--who supported him even after he killed her mother and hurt her father--divorced him a few years ago because of his gambling obsession.

Broughton and many other sleep-disorder experts agree with the authors of a 1985 article titled "On Serious Violence During Sleep-Walking." Published in a British journal, it concludes, "The sleeping mind is not in touch with reality and amnesia for events during sleep is usual."

Beyond that, warns Valley psychologist Dr. Carl Patrasso: "It's never good to wake up a sleepwalker suddenly. One of the difficulties seems to be the chance of violence and difficulty in waking them up. Many strike back or flail."

Mike Kimerer may try to convince jurors that that's exactly what happened in the Falater case--that Yarmila startled the sleepwalking Falater after he began work on the pool pump sometime after 10 p.m. Perhaps she tried to lead her husband back to the house, the attorney may argue, which set him into an unconscious rage.

Why Falater had the knife with him is uncertain. His sister, Laura Healy, speculates he intended to cut an O-ring out from the broken pool pump. "When we looked at the pump a week or so after Yarm died, it was freshly gouged," Healy says.

But if Falater went to fix the pump in his sleep--and the shining flashlight that police found lends some credence to that--where was his toolbox?

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin