Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Automatism: The Sleepwalker's Defense

What the Neighbor Saw

The next person in Arizona to use this defense, also in Maricopa County, was Scott Falater. On January 16, 1997, Greg Koons heard screaming from the backyard of his neighbor's home. Curious, he looked over the tall fence and saw Scott doing something in the pool. It was dark, so he kept watching and, to his shock, realized that Scott had hold of his wife, Yarmila, and that he was not trying to help her out of the water but rather was pushing her in and holding her head under. Koons went inside to call the police.

Maricopa County Sheriff's badge
Maricopa County Sheriff's badge

Officers came to Falater's home and Scott seemed surprised to see them. It looked as if he'd just woken up, but they checked in the back, saw the body in the pool and took him in for questioning. He seemed horrified that his wife was dead and that he was under arrest for it. Yarmila had been stabbed 44 times and then left in the pool. Scott claimed not to understand how it could have happened. He recalled that the family had had dinner together that evening and then he'd gone out to fix a faulty pool pump. He got the items he needed ready, including his work clothes, but then decided to do it later. He was too exhausted that evening. He thought he'd simply gone to bed.

Scott Falater
Scott Falater

Koons described what he'd seen and heard. To him, it appeared that Falater knew exactly what he was doing, although at one point he'd thought Falater had appeared "robotic." Falater had donned a pair of gloves to drag Yarmila to the water and roll her in. He'd even spoken to the dog as if he were just doing something routine. In fact, the police investigation found that Falater, an engineer and devout Mormon, had put his bloody clothing, his gloves, and the hunting knife he'd used on his wife into a plastic Tupperware container in the trunk of his Volvo, and had then put on pajamas, washed his hands and even placed a band-aid on a cut he'd sustained. Yet he claimed no memory of the entire event. He did not even realize until a detective pointed it out that he had Yarmila's blood on his neck. The videotaped interrogation showed Falater seemingly barely aware of his circumstances, seeming to confirm that he'd been in a trance, yet his lack of emotional reaction to the situation — apparently characteristic of his personality — would weigh against him.

His defense attorney, Michael Kimerer, would argue that if Falater had been consciously trying to hide evidence, he'd hardly have left the body of his wife floating in a bloody pool, where his two children could see her. Falater claimed to be a habitual sleep-walker, something his wife had once mentioned to a neighbor, and Kimerer believed that had to be considered. Falater had had no reason to kill his wife, he said; she had been his best friend. They had been good Mormons, raising their children in the faith, and in fifteen years of marriage had never even quarreled. Falater's children sided with him, insisting he'd never have intentionally killed their mother, but friends of Yarmila said that she'd hinted at a less than idyllic marriage.

 However, this trial would hinge on how the experts performed and while the defense had two and the prosecutor only one, their presentations were key to the jury's deliberations. The newspapers had already expressed plenty of skepticism, claiming Falater was using a copycat defense that had worked before. (Even Falater admitted later that if he'd read about this defense in someone else's case, he would have dismissed it as "flaky.") Precedent, it turned out, did not ensure the same results.