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The Big Sleep

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For six weeks in the summer of 1999, national media congregated at the Maricopa County courthouse to observe the Scott Falater "Sleepwalking Murder" trial. The Phoenix case attracted such attention because of its peculiar facts and even more peculiar defense ("Wake-Up Call," Paul Rubin, July 1, 1999).

That June, local television and radio stations broadcast the verdict live from Judge Ron Reinstein's courtroom: The jury concluded that Falater, a 43-year-old churchgoing father of two with no criminal history, had, with premeditation, stabbed his wife Yarmila 44 times, then rolled her into the family's swimming pool and held her head underwater.

In so doing, the panel rejected Falater's contention that he'd unconsciously attacked his beloved wife in a sleepwalking state in January 1997. The attorneys tried to bolster their argument by pointing out that the usual motives for murder -- money and jealousy -- never had emerged.

Falater was sentenced to life in prison, while his trial attorneys, Lori Voepel and Mike Kimerer, expressed hope that appeals they filed on his behalf would earn him a new trial.

Not so.

In a unanimous opinion issued January 17, the fifth anniversary of Yarmila Falater's murder, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld Falater's conviction and sentence.

The court recounted how a neighbor of the Falaters had seen Scott Falater try to quiet a barking dog, and continued to watch Falater as he'd rolled Yarmila into the pool and held her underwater with gloved hands. Police later found Scott Falater's bloody clothing and the murder weapon in his car trunk.

Writing for the court, Judge Sheldon Weisberg scoffed at the defense contention that prosecutors should have had to prove Falater was not sleepwalking when he'd killed his wife. Weisberg noted that even a defense sleepwalking expert, Janet Tatman, had testified that scientists don't really know what goes on in a sleepwalker's mind.

"[Tatman] even conceded that it was 'not impossible' that [Falater] lured the victim out to the backyard even if he was sleepwalking," Weisberg wrote.

The justices rejected Falater's allegations of misconduct against prosecutor Juan Martinez, noting that Judge Reinstein had only sustained a handful of defense objections against Martinez during the three-week trial.

The court also rejected Falater's argument that jurors should have been allowed to consider a manslaughter charge, which is far less serious under Arizona law than first-degree murder: "We agree with [Judge Reinstein] that there was no evidence of any provocation by the victim, let alone that [Scott Falater] had acted upon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion."

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