A Bump in the Night: When Sleepwalkers Turn Violent

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In May 1987, Ken Parks was watching Saturday Night Live with trouble on his mind. In the morning, he and his wife would go to his in-laws' house to confess that he had a gambling problem. That he had raided the family savings to cover his debts. That he had embezzled from the electronics company he worked for when he needed even more money. That he had been fired and charged with theft. That he and his wife had to sell the house.

He fell asleep on the couch around 1:30 a.m. and the next thing he claimed to be able to remember was looking down at his mother-in-law’s face, her eyes and mouth frozen wide open. He remembered going downstairs, starting his car and realizing that he had a knife in his hands. He remembered throwing the knife onto the floor, going to the police station for help and, upon questioning, saying, “I think I have killed some people . . . my hands,” only then feeling the pain of several severed ?exor tendons.

What Ken Parks said he did not remember was getting off the couch and getting dressed. He did not remember driving to his in-laws’ house and strangling his father-in-law when he got there. He did not remember going upstairs, stabbing his mother-in-law five times in the chest and beating her and fracturing her skull.

He did not remember killing her.

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The police took Parks to the Sunnybrook Medical Centre for treatment of his hands. To determine Parks’ ability to give consent for surgery, a psychiatric assessment was conducted and the examining psychiatric resident tentatively diagnosed Parks psychogenic amnesia and depression without psychotic features. After surgery, Parks was interviewed by police and charged with ?rst-degree murder.

He was later taken to Toronto East Detention Centre, where he underwent medical and psychiatric assessments at the request of his lawyer. The doctors considered acute psychotic episode under extreme stress, aggression during an amnesic drug-related state, volitional (deliberate) homicide with stress-induced amnesia and complex partial epileptic seizures with automatic behavior as possible diagnoses. All the doctors who examined Parks found evidence of depression and anxiety, but none said he showed signs of any delusions, hallucinations, paranoia or other evidence of psychosis. He had no history of psychosis or amnesic episodes, but was an occasional sleepwalker. During seven different interviews with various doctors, lawyers and the police, Parks’ explanation of what he did and did not remember that night remained consistent, down to specific details.

With no evidence of mental illness, the police thought Parks a likely culprit, especially given his recent history. At the age of 23, he had a wife, a 5-month-old daughter, a gambling problem and an always-increasing amount of debt. Hiding his problems and his actions from his wife and his co-workers caused him severe stress until March 1987, when the embezzlement was discovered and he was ?red and charged with theft.

Running out of options and with his secret now out at home, Parks and his wife put their house up for sale to cover at least some of the remaining debt. On May 20, Parks went to his ?rst Gamblers Anonymous meeting, where he was encouraged to discuss his problems with both his family and his in-laws. He made plans visit his grandmother the following Saturday (May 23) and his in-laws on Sunday (May 24) to come clean. Police figured that Parks might have changed his mind that weekend, or set the whole thing up as a cover, and tried to murder his in-laws either to get to their money or prevent them from finding out about his problems.

There were several strikes against this hypothesis, though. For one, Parks was particularly close with his wife’s parents and they seemed an unlikely choice of victim. Additionally, in almost every conversation he had with police, prison and medical personnel – beginning when he showed up in a confused state at the police station – Parks both denied any intent to kill his in-laws and expressed horror, remorse and great confusion about what had happened at their house.

Parks wasn’t crazy, and he didn’t seem to be a cold-blooded killer. The doctors working with him began to wonder if, given the timing and nature of the weekend’s events and his history of sleepwalking, some sort of sleep disorder might have caused Parks’ behavior.
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Aggression, assault, and murder have been linked with sleepwalking, sleep disorders, and even abrupt awakenings for centuries. Some ancient tribes believed that sleepers should not be awakened abruptly because their soul wouldn't have time to return to the body, causing the person to turn violent.

One of the first documented cases of sleep-related violence, or “nocturnal aggression,” is that of Bernard Schedmaizig, a woodcutter living in medieval Silesia (a historical region of Central Europe located mostly in Poland). One night, after Schedmaizig had been asleep for only a few hours, he woke up abruptly. He thought he saw an intruder at the foot of his bed, so he grabbed his ax and started swinging, killing his wife who slept beside him.

Other cases of homicidal somnambulism (homicidal violence associated with sleepwalking) through the years include the military officer who shot another solider and his own horse, the servant who stabbed her master’s child, the housewife who threw her infant out a window, and the ?reman who woke up to find he had beaten his wife to death with a shovel.

To this day, sleepwalking isn’t completely understood. Medical studies have suggested various causes, such as delays in the maturation of the central nervous system or physiological triggers that cause the brain to exit slow wave sleep straight to wakefulness (instead transitioning from REM or NREM). Since sleepwalking is clustered in families and a child’s likelihood of sleepwalking increases if one or both parents are sleepwalkers, some heritable factor might predispose someone to the behavior. Factors such as sleep deprivation, excessive tiredness and use of alcohol, antipsychotics and hypnotics all appear to influence the occurrence of sleepwalking in those predisposed to it.
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Sleepwalking is generally accepted in the medical community as a state of automatism, or automatic behavior, where a person has neither awareness nor control of their behavior. Legally speaking, murder requires intent, so the issues of awareness and control were of great interest to Parks’ defense counsel. A sleep disorder specialist was brought in to see if somnambulism or another sleep disorder played any role in Parks’ crimes.

The specialist’s investigation revealed that Parks had been a severe bedwetter for a number of years, a chronic sleep talker, an occasional sleepwalker and a deep sleeper who was very hard to awaken. During two overnight sleep studies, Parks had frequent shifts to lighter sleep or wakefulness. Sleepwalking, sleep talking, bedwetting, deep sleeping and night terrors were also found to be fairly common among members of Parks’ family.

Parks had the predisposing factors (strong family and personal history of sleepwalking) that would normally lead to a diagnosis of somnambulism, and the coupling of tiredness and need for deep sleep with the stress of his plans for the weekend were considered possible triggering factors for an episode of sleepwalking. Parks’ attorney decided to argue his legal defense as “homicide during noninsane automatism as part of a presumed episode of somnambulism.” They argued that Parks did not have any preexisting “disease of the mind,” there was no evidence for psychosis or other mental illness and that the clustering of factors that triggered the assault and murder was rare, so the recurrence of violent sleepwalking with aggression was unlikely. Parks should be acquitted, his attorney argued, and not be subject to mandatory hospitalization in a psychiatric institution (as he would were his behavior the result of an insane automatism or if he posed a continuing danger to others).
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"Sleepwalking defenses” have had a mixed track record in the courts of various countries. There was a man in Wales who dreamed intruders had broken into his camper one night while he and his wife were on vacation and woke up the next morning to find he had strangled his wife to death. He had suffered from sleep disorders for 50 years, but had gone off his medication so it wouldn’t interfere with the intimate 40th wedding anniversary he and his wife had planned. The man was acquitted, with the judge telling him, “You are a decent man and a devoted husband. In the eyes of the law, you bear no responsibility.” In 2003, an Englishman who beat his father to death claimed that he had been sleeping at the time and was committed to a mental institution. In 1981 a man in Arizona stabbed his wife 26 times while sleepwalking and was found temporarily insane by a jury, who acquitted him. In 1997, another Arizona resident stabbed his wife 44 times and drowned her in their pool. He claimed to remember nothing about the incident and that he was asleep at the time. At trial, a prosecution expert testified that the man’ actions after the murder – changing his clothes and placing his bloody clothing and the murder weapon in a garbage bag in the spare tire well in the trunk of his car – were too complex to have been carried out during sleepwalking. The man was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
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On May 25, 1988, the jury in Ken Parks’ murder trial rendered a verdict of not guilty. Parks was also acquitted of the attempted murder of his father-in-law shortly after. After his release from custody, Parks began receiving psychotherapy taking anti-anxiety meds before bed. After the acquittal, the trial judge’s determination that somnambulism was a form of noninsane automatism was appealed to the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court of Canada. Both appellate courts upheld the original decision. Ken Parks has not reported any further episodes of sleepwalking or nighttime violence—only a few instances of sitting up in his sleep.

[Image credits: Toronto Star, iStockPhoto]

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