Yes, people can actually kill other people in their sleep. It’s called homicidal somnambulism, or more simply, homicidal sleepwalking. The phenomenon is quite rare, but the few cases that have been documented reveal some commonalities. One is that sleepwalking violence occurs mostly in 27 to 48-year-old men who have had a history of unusual sleeping behavior, especially sleepwalking as a child. Another is that these episodes have been found to usually take place within thirty minutes to two hours from the time the perpetrator of the violence first falls asleep, the period when an abnormality may occur while transitioning from non-REM to REM sleep.
How does the law deal with violence that occurs while a person is sleepwalking? Although there are a few cases when courts have punished such perpetrators for their actions, in general, the perpetrator is absolved of the crime by reason of his or her temporarily impaired consciousness. In fact, temporarily impaired consciousness has been widely accepted as the third category under “diminished capacity” after mental retardation and mental disorders. However, despite often being found not guilty, sufferers of homicidal somnambulism are usually required by judges to seek treatment for their disorders, and fortunately, most such treatments are successful.
Here are ten of the most shocking documented cases of homicidal sleepwalking:
10. Father Dreams of Creature Attacking Baby
Simon Fraser of Glasgow, Scotland occasionally suffered from violent episodes while having nightmares. When he was a teenager, he once beat up his father and another time attempted to strangle his sister — both while he was fast asleep. Then, as an adult, his wife told of being pulled out of bed by her legs when Simon dreamt that he was saving her from a fire. These episodes culminated in the most tragic of events when on the morning of April 10, 1878, a 27-year-old Simon got out of bed, lifted his 18-month-old son, and smashed the baby’s head against a wall, instantly killing him. Upon awakening and being questioned by police, the horrified father didn’t deny killing his son, but explained that he had dreamt he was defending the baby from a savage creature. Eventually, a jury decided that Fraser, although sane, was not responsible for his actions. Reports say that from that time onwards, the troubled man slept alone in a room that was locked from the outside.
9. Sleeping While Nervous Leads to a Homicide
Isom Bradley, an African-American, was deeply in love with his girlfriend, Ada Jenkins. However, Bradley was bothered by a certain Lawrence Williams, who had previously threatened him. One night in 1925, Bradley and Jenkins talked about Williams, causing Bradley to go to sleep nervous for fear that Williams could attack him that night. To prepare himself for a defense, Bradley slept with a gun under his pillow. Unfortunately, when he was alarmed by a noise that night, he immediately began shooting while still asleep and ended up killing his girlfriend. Eventually, Bradley was convicted by a jury, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the verdict and set Bradley free because he was probably in a state of somnambulism at the time of the homicide.
8. Vice-Mayor’s Family Is Attacked
On August 17, 1943, a strange turn of events rocked Boone County, Kentucky. The family of the vice-mayor, Carl Kiger, was attacked with gunfire, causing the deaths of Carl and his 6-year-old son, Jerry. Meanwhile, Carl’s wife, Jennie, was wounded in the hip. The only member of the family left untouched was Carl’s 15-year-old daughter, Joan, who later drove the family car to ask a neighbor, Robert Mayo, for help. She told Mayo that an intruder had fired shots into their home and that she had used the family’s guns to fire back. However, investigators later found that it was the family’s guns that were used to fire all of the shots, Jennie subsequently found to be in possession of one of the weapons. Four months later, a Grand Jury indicted Joan and Jennie for the murders, with Joan standing trial first and possibly facing the death penalty if found guilty. However, the revelation that Joan had been suffering from vivid nightmares — just as her father had — along with the lack of a motive for the murders, was reason enough for the jury to return a not-guilty verdict. Charges against Joan were subsequently dropped.
7. The Drunk Sleepwalker
In 2005, Jules Lowe of Manchester made judicial history in the United Kingdom when he became the first person to be acquitted of murder by virtue of sleepwalking while committing a crime. The said act took place in October of 2003 after Jules, who was very close to his father Eddie, had participated in a drinking session. Moments after going to sleep, Jules proceeded to kick, punch, and stomp on his father, killing him in the process. A neighbor then called the police after seeing Eddie’s lifeless body on the driveway of the family’s home, and Jules was soon arrested. However, by conducting a series of sleep studies on Jules before the trial, the prosecution was able to determine that the 23-year-old suffered from a tendency to experience automatism in his sleep, thus supporting Jules’s claim that he had no recollection of carrying out the murder of his father.
6. Mother Dreams of Fighting Korean Soldiers
Ivy Cogdon of Carnegie, Australia occasionally had nightmares, which she acted on while asleep. One time, she learned that someone in her town had bred red spiders to sell as pets, which caused her to dream about her daughter being attacked by the creatures. As Cogdon slept, she headed to her daughter’s room and attempted to rid Patricia of the dreamt up creatures crawling all over her — a strange act, but largely harmless. However, in the wee hours of the morning of August 11, 1950, the 50-year-old mother’s sleepwalking resulted in a devastating outcome. Before heading to bed that night, Patricia had told her mother that it was possible she could be assigned as a transport driver if the Koreans attacked Australia. That caused Ivy to dream of Korean soldiers attacking their home, which in turn made her smash her beloved daughter’s head with an axe, killing her instantly. A criminal court believed Ivy’s story, and ended up acquitting the horrified mother of the murder charge against her.
5. Father Puts on Halloween Mask in His Sleep
50-year-old Joseph Anthony Mitchell of North Carolina had been bothered by financial woes leading to sleep deprivation, and if the verdict in his case is to be believed, those factors contributed to a violent episode of somnambulism. Alexis, Mitchell’s 13-year-old daughter, testified that her father, wearing a halloween mask, entered her room on September 22, 2010. He then pushed her head in between a wall and her bed, causing her to pass out. When she gained consciousness, she saw her father strangling Devin, her 13-year-old brother, and after she had failed to stop her father, she ran to her mother’s room. The terrified mother, Christine Perolini, then asked Alexis to get her brothers, but when the teen picked up her 4-year-old brother, Blake, he was already dead. Devin, however, survived. In the end, the jury returned a unanimous not-guilty verdict because the murder and attempted murder charges had not been sufficiently proven.
4. Sleepwalker Drives 23 Kilometers to In-Laws’ Home
In the wee hours of one morning in May, 1987, 23-year-old Kenneth Parks drove 23 kilometers from his home in Pickering to the home of his in-laws in Scarborough, Ontario. He then proceeded to use a kitchen knife to kill his mother-in-law and seriously injure his father-in-law. Afterwards, Parks drove to a nearby police station and confessed what he had done. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court of Canada acquitted Parks because he was found to have been asleep as he committed the crimes. More specifically, the judges believed Parks’s story that he had nodded off while watching television and only awoke after he had already confessed to the police. Fortunately, after being put on medication, Parks never experienced somnambulism again.
3. Somnambulism or Fake Alibi?
The case of Albert Jackson Tirrell in 1846 marked the first time sleepwalking was successfully used in America as a defense in a murder charge. However, the acquittal sparked great outrage because many believed that the alibi was a fabricated one. The murder took place on the morning of October 7, 1845 when Tirrell, the son of a wealthy family from Massachusetts, paid a visit to his girlfriend, prostitute Maria Bickford. Tirrell had actually been married with children when he began his relationship with Bickford, who was herself financially well-off and continued her work despite eloping with Tirrell.
On the morning of Tirrell’s visit to the brothel where Bickford worked, loud noises were heard from her room, after which three fires struck the establishment. When Bickford’s room was checked, she was found with her throat slit from ear to ear, her head nearly detached from her body. And because Tirrell was the last to be seen entering Bickford’s room, he was the obvious suspect. However, Tirrell’s lawyers successfully argued that since he was a habitual sleepwalker, he could have performed the murder in his sleep.
2. Sleepwalker Yells “Hoo-Wee!” After Homicide
In 1879, a 30-year-old man with the surname “Fain” successfully appealed his conviction for murder after he had been found guilty by a lower court. The incident leading to the case took place one evening in February when Fain and a friend, George Welch, visited the Veranda Hotel. The two had fallen asleep in a public room, and when Welch awakened, he paid a porter for lodging. Welch then tried to awaken Fain to get him to transfer to a bed, but failed, so Welch asked the porter to do so. The porter, in a desperate attempt to wake Fain, shook him violently, but when Fain finally awoke, he ended up shooting the porter repeatedly, thus killing him. Strangely, Fain afterwards began to shout “hoo-wee” several times, then left the room as if frightened. A witness later reported that Fain had told him about having shot someone but not knowing who it was. In acquitting Fain, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky recognized that he had been a sleepwalker since his youth and that being short on sleep had likely triggered the violent but involuntary episode.
1. Detective Shocked Upon Solving a Murder
In the 1880s, 35-year-old Robert Ledru of Paris, France was widely recognized as being among the best detectives of his time. Thus, when visiting businessman Andre Monet was shot dead at a beach in 1887 and no leads could be found, they called for Ledru to look into the case. The first detail the detective took note of was that right footprints apparently left by the killer at the murder scene lacked a big toe. Ledru, also missing the big toe on his right foot, then suddenly remembered that he had awoken that morning and found his socks to be inexplicably wet. The horrified investigator then headed to the police and confessed that he had committed the murder in his sleep. To study the discovery, Ledru was given a gun with blanks and made to sleep in a jail for observation. And as expected, that night, Ledru arose in his sleep and fired blanks at his guards. It was also later concluded that Ledry’s somnambulism had been brought about by his long untreated syphilis. For this reason, the unwilling murderer was unable to continue his sterling career as a detective and had to spend the remaining years of his life in the Parisian countryside, where guards and nurses attended to him.