Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Automatism: The Sleepwalker's Defense

Women Sleepwalk Too

Rita Graveline claimed that her husband had abused her for some thirty years. In August 1999, she shot and killed him while he slept, but at her trial she claimed she had done it in a trance. Thus, she had no awareness of what she was doing, and no control. It was a reaction. Charged with second-degree murder, she went to trial.

Her attorney employed two psychiatrists who testified that Rita had been sleepwalking at the time of the incident and could not be considered responsible. She had suppressed reactive rage over the years, but during an episode of sleepwalking she had expended it all. The jury, made up of ten women and one man, acquitted her of murder.

However, a story in the Globe and Mail indicated that the prosecutor appealed this decision and the majority of judges on a Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal, ordering a new trial. They had decided in a 2-1 vote that the lower-court judge had misunderstood the concept of automatism and therefore had instructed the jurors incorrectly by opening up the possibility that Graveline had acted in self-defense. In that case, she would have been aware of what she was doing.

The Supreme Court of Canada, however, nullified this ruling and allowed the acquittal to stand. In the majority decision, seven of the justices stated they couldn't conclude that the jury acquitted Graveline on an unreasonable basis when the Crown had already allowed automatism to be a reasonable defense. Combining it with self-defense had not been a significant distraction, so Graveline did not have to face another trial.

Other women have committed stabbings and thefts while allegedly sleepwalking, and in 2003, Patricia Lawrence was acquitted of murdering her husband in their South London home. She said he had been choking her and she stabbed him, but recalled nothing about the act. The jury decided it was self-defense, whether she had known it or not.

However, the issue of non-insane automatism has become more controversial, and since 1999 the courts have grown more inclined to say that there should be considerable corroborating evidence for this mental state before it is allowed as a defense.


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