What Happens If You Commit a Murder While Sleepwalking?
Albert Jackson Tirrell, a 22-year-old aristocrat, sits stiffly in a Boston courtroom, awaiting a verdict on his murder trial. It’s March 24, Protected content three months earlier, Tirrell’s mistress, a prostitute, had been found dead in a boardinghouse, nearly decapitated by a three-inch deep, six-inch wide cut. By her feet, a razor blade, groom’s vest, and cane had been left soaking in a pool of blood. The bed had been set on fire. Tirrell, the last man seen with the woman, had fled the scene.
In court, prosecutors present these facts linearly, in gruesome, stark detail. Tirrell, they claim, is a lecherous, unfaithful “buffoon”: he plotted the murder to cover up his affair, so as not to besmirch his reputation. But Rufus Choate, the defendant’s renowned attorney, presents an entirely different case: his client is a chronic sleepwalker who committed the crime in “the insanity of sleep” and, as such, should not be held responsible.
Choate acknowledges that his line of defense is “peculiar,” then proceeds to pitch it with the fervor of an antebellum Billy Mays. He voraciously prances about the courtroom, first establishing, through twelve testimonies, that Tirrell has been sleepwalking since the age of six, and that his “mental derangement” has progressively gotten worse over the years: he’d accosted his brother, smashed windows, and held his cousin at knifepoint, all under a “somnambulistic trance.” Next the dean of Harvard Medical School is brought in to attest that “a man could, quite conceivably, rise in the night, dress himself, commit a murder, set a fire, and make an impromptu escape” while asleep. “Somnambulism explains…the killing without a motive,” Choate concludes, stampeding along the bench. “Premeditated murder does not.”
After two hours of deliberation, the jury emerges with a verdict: Tirrell is declared innocent. But there is a bigger implication to the case. Choate’s defense -- the first of its kind -- set a precedent for citing sleepwalking as a line of defense in court. In the Protected content following his trial, an array of supposed sleepwalking murder cases have surfaced, all of which have questioned the boundaries of criminal litigation.
A Closing Statement
Ultimately, none of these cases provide formal proof of etiology (causation). That is, even when a defense team raises ample proof of a killer’s sleepwalking tendencies, it’s nearly always impossible to prove that was the root cause of the murder. At the same time, it can’t be disproven; in the criminal justice system, reasonable doubt often leads to acquittal. Limited medical knowledge of the root causes of sleepwalking has lent it to multiple associations -- as an act of unconsciousness, automatism, and insanity -- and has prevented us from understanding which explanation is the most accurate.
Courts’ rulings on sleepwalking as a defense have been much like one who suffers from the disorder: hazy, inconsistent, and unable to discern fact from fiction. Until it is medically decoded, legalists will continue to grasp for truth.