Automatism: The Sleepwalker's Defense
According to Dr. Carlos Schenck, a psychiatrist at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, there are eleven different types of sleep disorders that, collectively, are labeled sexsomnia. Canadian researchers coined the term in 2003. Sexsomnia is a rare but diagnosable form of automatism in which people carry out sexual acts in their sleep. One woman in Australia would walk out of her house while asleep and repeatedly have sex with strangers. Her husband finally caught her in the act.
Sexsomnia, which accounts for about 4 percent of sleep disorders in adults, can actually cause a psychologically healthy person to engage in sexual activity while asleep. "Any basic instinct," Schenck said for Fox News, "can come out of the context of sleep." He did a search of fifty-six years' worth of medical literature, studied medical texts, and gathered information through surveys, finding that the largest percentage of people who had such disorders were male. They learned about what they had unconsciously done only if a partner, roommate or victim told them. Among the activities were vulgar talking, violent masturbation, and rape. Those at greatest risk generally suffered from other parasomnias, too, such as sleepwalking or sleep terror. In order to avoid secondary problems such as anxiety or depression, sexsomnia must be treated.
Senior RAF Aircraftsman Kenneth Ecott, 26, was arrested for the rape of a 15-year-old girl. They had been at a party in the same house, and, during the night, several guests staying over had bedded down on air mattresses. Ecott and the victim were next to each other. He had drunk a considerable amount of vodka before falling asleep, and, when he woke up, he found himself standing in the garden outside, naked. He claimed he had no memory of anything in between, but the girl said she had woken up in the night to find him on top of her, raping her. He had taken off the trousers he'd worn to bed and removed her underwear. She screamed, and he told her to "be quiet," and then got up and walked away as if in a trance. Ecott admitted to her family that he had committed the rape and apologized, but they called the police.
At trial, he claimed he was not criminally responsible because he suffered from a condition called "sexsomnia," and had been asleep when he forced himself on the girl. "I was drunk," he said, "and I went to sleep, and then I woke up and my life was over. I was standing outside completely naked and wondering what the hell I was doing there."
Ecott's girlfriend testified on his behalf, saying he often did things to her in bed while he was asleep and had no memory of it. He had a reputation for sleepwalking among members of the RAF who'd served with him. They had even given him a T-shirt with "Night Rider" printed on it as a joke.
Dr. Irshaad Ebrahim, from the London Sleep Centre, testified that alcohol and stress can both be factors in this disorder. "Mr. Ecott had recently come across from Afghanistan," he said, "and had symptoms of jetlag and sleep deprivation."
After only two hours, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, shocking the mother of the victim. "I don't believe he was sleepwalking," she said. "I don't know what was going though his head."
Yet he would not be the only one to have a jury accept this defense. Toronto landscaper Jan Luedecke went through a similar ordeal. He, too, had been drinking heavily at a summer croquet party in 2003 when he attempted to have sex with an unwilling partner. They both had fallen asleep on an L-shaped couch, on opposite ends. The woman woke up to find Luedecke on top of her. He'd removed her underwear and pulled up her skirt. She pushed him away and said he appeared to be confused, but he'd been thinking clearly enough to put on a condom. She called the police and he was arrested. At his trial, he claimed he'd been sleepwalking and had little memory of the incident. A sleep disorder expert testified on his behalf and since the prosecutor failed to offer an expert to contradict this testimony, the jury acquitted. In 2008 an appeals court upheld the verdict.
Automatism, especially in the case of sexual disorders, remains a controversial defense, and the results are as uneven as any other psychological defense. Often, it depends on the expert's ability to persuade, since brain research is not necessarily definitive, and since a claim of unconscious behavior can be easily invoked. Needless to say, victims of crimes in which an automatism defense results in an acquittal regularly feel that the defense violates the legal process and derails justice.