November 21, 2009

Wales: Another prime-time automatist

In my last post, I blogged about the Toronto sexual assault case in which a man was acquitted on the grounds that he was asleep. Now, I bring you a second high-profile case of sleep disorder, that of a Welch man acquitted in the killing of his wife because he was dreaming at the time.

Sleep experts for the prosecution and defense agreed that Brian Thomas's behavior was consistent with automatism, meaning at the time he killed his wife, his mind had no control over what his body was doing.

During last week's trial, the jury was instructed that there are two types of automatism: insane automatism and non-insane automatism. Based on which type they chose, Thomas could have either been acquitted or found not guilty by reason of insanity and hospitalized.

But suddenly, in mid-trial, the prosecutor had second thoughts and dropped his effort to obtain an NGI verdict, allowing Thomas to walk free. A prosecution psychiatrist, Dr. Caroline Jacob, had testified that Thomas was not a risk to the public.

Thomas was described as a gentle family man who had been married to his childhood sweetheart for 40 years. He called police to say he had killed his wife because he thought she was an intruder.

Click on above image to see a brief video of Thomas after the acquittal

In an odd coincidence, the Journal of Forensic Sciences had just published an article describing clinical cases with eerie similarity to Thomas's. Carlos Schenck and colleagues at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center found about 40 cases in the literature in which people, mainly men, had engaged in complex and violent behaviors while enacting dreams. The authors found a pattern with clear forensic implications, because dream behaviors could be misinterpreted as suicidal or homicidal. That's what happened in Thomas's case: To his family's dismay, he spent 10 months in jail awaiting trial. The actual cause of such behaviors, according to the article, is not malice but Rapid Eye Movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD), in which the normal muscle atonia present during REM sleep is absent, allowing sleepers to physically enact their dreams.

In a strong similarity to Thomas's case, the majority of cases involved choking and headlocks. Thomas had gotten his wife in a headlock and then strangled her.

In another similarity, in about half the cases the patient either had a neurologic disorder or was taking medication for psychiatric disorders. Thomas had just stopped taking antidepressant medication, and the withdrawal was causing nightmares.

What were the other most common behaviors found in the study?

In second place was jumping off the bed. And in third place, with seven cases, came defenestration. That one might have been difficult here, as Thomas and his wife were vacationing in an RV at the time of the killing.

The BBC has further coverage of the case. The abstract of the Journal of Forensic Sciences article, Potentially Lethal Behaviors Associated With Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder: Review of the Literature and Forensic Implications, is HERE.

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