Friday, August 29, 2014

Lethal Sleepwalkers

Rick's post on Tuesday about encountering his characters in a dream got me thinking about sleep. Sleep has always fascinated me – particularly because I spend the months from May to September sleep-deprived. Summer is not for night owls. Even with shades and blackout curtains, even with the air conditioner turned up to full blast, we are barely settling in when the summer sun rises bright and much too early.

Rick's post also reminded me of a conversation that I had with two friends a few weeks ago. I'm not sure how we got on the subject, but I mentioned the phenomenon I used to experience as a child, much more rarely as an adult. Until Google came along, I wasn't sure what it was called. But even as a child, I did doubt my grandmother's folktale about a witch sitting on the sleeper's chest. When I was all grown up and able to do some research, I learned that the phenomenon is known as "sleep paralysis". As I explained it to my fascinated and slightly horrified friends, one wakes up but can't move. According to scientists it may have a number of causes, including disrupted REM sleep. I've been lucky enough never to experience the version in which one has hallucinations, just those few seconds of being unable to move until my body catches up with my brain.

Sleep paralysis is only one of a long list of fascinating sleep disorders, from snoring and sleep apnea to night terrors. And then there's insomnia. Remember Al Pacino in the movie Insomnia (2002), as a LAPD detective sent to an Alaska fishing village to investigate a murder?  All that daylight and his own guilty conscience. The great Robin Williams played a crime writer in that one.

And then there's sleep walking. Children do it. Night eaters do it. As you may recall, there are also a number of cases of killers who have claimed that they murdered in their sleep. The earliest use of the "sleepwalking defense" in the United States was in 1846 in Massachusetts v.Tirrell. This case is better known as the Mary ("Maria") Bickford case.

Albert Tirrell had left his wife to be with Maria Bickford, a beautiful (also married) brothel prostitute. Bickford was found with her throat slashed in a Boston brothel. Tirrell was seen fleeing the scene of the crime. He was later arrested in New Orleans and brought back to Massachusetts. Tirrell, who was wealthy, hired the famous attorney Rufus Choate. Choate offered the jury two possiblities – that Maria Bickford might have committed suicide or that if Tirrell had killed her, he had done it while sleepwalking. It was an innovative defense based on the claim that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker.

Tirrell was acquitted and as recently as 1987 a young Canadian man, who drove to his in-laws house and attacked them, was also able to successfully use the sleepwalking defense. The Lifetime movie about the case is called The Sleepwalking Killer.

However, the sleepwalking defense hinges on the defendant being able to establish that he was in a trance-like state and unaware of what he was doing, without a history of violence or a motive for murder. Here are other cases in which this defense has been used:

"To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there's the rub
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come"
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

Although Hamlet was talking about death not the challenges of getting a good night's sleep, the quote seems apt. 

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