Automatism: The Sleepwalker's Defense
Attack in the Night
Kenneth Parks, 23, lived in Pickering, near Toronto, Ontario, with his wife and infant daughter. He'd lost a good job, due to his embezzlement, and suffered from a gambling addiction that had put him into serious debt. As a result he experienced a high level of stress that induced insomnia. One night, May 23, 1987, he rose from bed and got into his car. Despite, as he said later, not being awake, he drove about 14 miles to the home of his wife's parents in Scarborough. Accounts say he then removed a tire iron from the car and entered the house, where he proceeded to beat his mother-in-law to death and choke his father-in-law into unconsciousness. He also used a knife from his in-laws' kitchen to stab them.
He then drove to a police station, a blood-spattered mess, to turn himself in. "I think I have killed some people with my bare hands," he repeated over and over, finally identifying his victims and claiming it was "all my fault." Severe cuts to his hands attested to a struggle, and after the police placed him under arrest they took him to a hospital for treatment on the severed tendons. Other officers went searching for victims. Just as he'd told them, his mother-in-law was dead and his father-in-law in serious condition. His father-in-law was taken to a hospital and recovered.
Parks claimed he remembered nothing about the assault. His relations with his in-laws were good, despite his financial situation, and he claimed he had no reason to hurt them. While his wife agreed with his lack of motive, she was appalled by what he'd apparently done.
Parks had a history of sleepwalking, so his attorney decided on the defense of automatism. She organized a panel of experts to describe for the jury the nature of the automatistic state, including the possibility that someone could drive a car without full awareness and also commit attacks and killings without the requisite criminal intent to consider the acts assault and murder. The team comprised several psychiatrists, a psychologist, a neurologist and a sleep disorder specialist, and they all concluded that at the time of the offense Ken Parks had been asleep. His defense was homicidal somnambulism.
Sleepwalking is diagnosed as either a neurological disorder with an external stimulus, or a psychiatric disorder with an internal stimulus. The experts described Parks's actions as the result of many circumstances converging: he had plans to fix his in-laws' furnace, he was used to the route he would take to get to their house, and he was restless from stress and anxious about his upcoming embezzlement trial. In his sleep, something spurred him to take care of the favor, and when he went in to fix the furnace, he was startled by his in-laws. He attacked both without knowing what he was doing. To strengthen the defense, his family's history of sleep disorders was submitted.
Dr. R Billings, a psychiatrist, explained that the mind during sleep was independent from the conscious mind "in terms of its objectives." There is less control or means of directing it, as its actions "are part of an incomplete arousal process during which all investigators have concluded that volition is not present." Parks could not have intended the acts nor appreciated what he was doing. He would not have been conscious of legal consequences because the attack had been "uncontrolled and unmediated."
The experts said that Parks did not have a pre-existing disease of the mind within the meaning of the Canadian criminal code. He was not psychotic and the "clustering of such a number of triggering factors was extremely unlikely to occur again." In other words, he was not a danger to others in the future. To strengthen this prediction, the experts testified of other cases in which there had been no repeat violence.
Parks's wife, now siding with him, also took the stand in his defense. She reiterated that he'd had no motive and had never been violent that she knew of. He'd had a good relationship with her parents. It was a high profile trial, with strong feelings on both sides. The jury faced a difficult decision.
On May 25, 1988, the jury acquitted Parks of murder and later of attempted murder. Although the government appealed, in 1992 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the acquittals. This case went into many textbook accounts of automatism, as an example of a case in which a killer could not appreciate what he was doing. While controversial, the verdict stood.
An alternate outcome occurred, though, in the case of William Wade in Bolton, Ontario, according to the Toronto Star. His wife asked him for a divorce and, coincidentally enough, he then supposedly had a sleepwalking episode that resulted in stabbing her, chasing her outside and repeatedly banging her head against a curb, killing her. He said he recalled none of it, but the jury was unconvinced. They convicted him.
It's clear, then, that a defense of unconscious behavior is by itself no guarantee of acquittal: it's often difficult for juries to believe, or even comprehend such a defense. A lot rides on the experts in these cases.