Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Automatism: The Sleepwalker's Defense

The Experts Disagree

The trial was a battle of sleep disorder experts, with testimony about other such cases and descriptions about sleep experiments, aggression, and the sleeping brain. Prosecutor Juan Martinez developed the theory that Falater had become estranged from his wife because he had wanted more children and she had not and because he had wanted her to be more involved in the church. That was the only possible motive Martinez could unearth, but he did emphasize that after the murder, Falater had removed every item of clothing that bore her blood, wrapped it up and stowed it out of sight in the trunk of his Volvo. He'd also misled investigators about which knife had been used, though Falater claimed he'd simply forgotten.

Among the defense experts was Dr. Roger Broughton, from a sleep disorder center in Ottowa. He had also testified for Ken Parks. He admitted that some of the behaviors were questionable, but his concluding diagnosis was homicidal somnambulism.

Dr. Rosalind Carter, an expert from Chicago, also spoke for the defense. She had examined Falater during four nights of sleep, done experiments with others, and claimed it was possible to be aggressive during a sleepwalking episode. "They are confused," she testified. "They are not conscious." To try to make rational sense of their actions or motives was to misunderstand the brain in such an altered state. She thought the Falater case was nearly a textbook example of a sleepwalking disorder. It was possible that in his sleep, Falater was going through some routine, such as cleaning the pool or fixing a faulty pump, and Yarmila had gone out to get him to stop and come back in. His brain, interrupted, went into a state of alarm, and he attacked. But he would not have had conscious appreciation for what he'd done.

Falater did have a history of sleepwalking, and even an episode of aggression while sleeping. His sister testified that she'd once tried to rouse him to keep him from going outside and he'd thrown her across the room. Although his children had never seen such behavior while he was an adult, Falater testified that he and Yarmila had thought it unnecessary to tell them.

Kimerer said that Falater had endured a number of stressors recently related to his job and that his brain could have been in a high state of arousal from that. He'd been getting little sleep. He had in fact been working on the pool pump that night, right after dinner with the family. He'd gotten the tools, the knife for removing the O-ring, and his work clothes from the trunk of his car, but had decided to delay the work until the next day. He was too tired and had instead gone to bed. Apparently the repair remained in his mind because he'd risen while asleep to go do it. Yarmila and Scott were "soul-mates," said Kimerer, so the homicide was senseless. If Falater were so intent on committing a crime and doing it without being implicated, wouldn't he have put on the gloves before stabbing her rather than between the stabbing and putting her into the pool? Wouldn't he have moved the body instead of just going to bed?

However, Martinez put his own expert on the stand, Dr. Mark Pressman, who went through a detailed analysis of Falater's actions and said they were too complex to have been the typical rote motions of a sleepwalker. He believed Falater had known what he was doing. "The only way that sleep experts think that violence can happen with a sleepwalker is that somebody physically confronts them, gets in their way," he said. "That's clearly impossible on the second episode of violence. The victim was lying there near death. Clearly she didn't get up and get in his way. She didn't grab him, she didn't stop him."

Falater testified on his own behalf, repeating that while Yarmila had wanted to be less involved with the church than he and had not wanted more children, he had respected her decision. He loved her and had no reason to kill her.

It wasn't an easy verdict. The jury deliberated eight hours before they came back on June 25, 1999, with a finding that Scott Falater was guilty of first-degree murder. He received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Jurors later said they had been swayed by such issues as why Yarmila's screams had not woken him and why he had been using a hunting knife to fix the pool.

 

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