Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Automatism: The Sleepwalker's Defense

Nonfatal Automatism

In Queensland, Australia, a man named Burgess struck a woman in the head with a bottle and then tried to strangle her. She survived and pressed charges. Burgess claimed that he'd been sleepwalking at the time and could not recall what he had done. The experts were called in, but in this case the disorder was connected to his mental state, and he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. This was perhaps due to a ruling by the trial judge that if he was going to raise an automatism defense, it had to be within the context of insanity.

Map of Australia with Queensland highlighted
Map of Australia with Queensland highlighted

Dr. d'Orban testified for the defense, agreeing with two other mental health experts that Burgess suffered from a sleep disorder. He referred to it as an "internal factor" and said it was likely to recur again. In other words, if left untreated, Burgess might act out violently again, in the same manner, because the automatism was associated with a physical pathology, an "abnormality of the brain function." D'Orban advised that Burgess be detained in a hospital and treated.

The judge found that the violence in the case seemed uncaused, i.e., it failed to be consistent to the situation, and was thus not under the defendant's conscious control. He thus did have a disease of the mind that needed to be treated like any other case of medical insanity.

Among other variations of automatism is a compulsive sexual disorder, which several people have utilized in their defense.


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