Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Automatism: The Sleepwalker's Defense

Dissociative Stress

Police in Scottsdale, Arizona, received a call in 1981 from Steven Steinberg reporting that an intruder had murdered his wife, Elena, stabbing her 26 times with a kitchen knife from the house during a botched burglary. Terrible as that seemed, police found no evidence of an intruder. They arrested Steinberg, who admitted that he'd done it, although he claimed no memory of the incident. He argued that he had been sleepwalking.

Map of Arizona with Scottsdale locator
Map of Arizona with Scottsdale locator

At Steinberg's trial, defense attorney Bob Hirsh described Elena as a demanding "Jewish American Princess" who had driven Steinberg crazy. Hirsh argued that Elena overspent and nagged incessantly; Steinberg had finally had a violent reaction. Dr. Martin Blinder, a psychiatrist, testified that Steinberg had experienced a short-term, stress-related dissociative reaction. Although he'd fabricated a story about intruders — hardly a symptom of automatism - the jury found him not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity, so he left court a free man. He did not have to have any treatment. No one believed he was a danger and they accepted the claim that his one-time offense had been committed under extreme duress. Members of the jury who offered comments afterward said they knew they were releasing a killer but believed he had not been criminally responsible.

Dr. Martin Blinder
Dr. Martin Blinder

Thirteen years later, things changed for juries in Arizona and several other states around the country. Not satisfied with the notion that someone who had clearly committed a criminal act could still be found not guilty, politicians added a new option: guilty but mentally ill, or the GBMI verdict. The person could be found both guilty and mentally ill, and could thus be incarcerated for a determinate period but also appropriately treated.

 

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