Legal Lis: Sleepwalking Defense Yields Murder Acquittal In Dad’s Trial


In September of 2010, Joseph Anthony Mitchell fell asleep just like he would on any other night. In the middle of the night, though, he suffocated his son, 4-year-old Blake Mitchell, to death, and attempted to kill 10-year-old Devon Mitchell and 13-year-old Lexi Mitchell. There’s no doubt that this story is tragic. Here you have a young child dreaming the night away, only to have his life taken from him. And it’s also very shocking. What would possess a father of three to take one child’s life and try to take two others? Was he mentally unstable? Was there some life event that spurred unmanageable anger? Then came his defense: Mitchell was allegedly sleepwalking when he took his son’s life.

Apparently, the father of three had not been sleeping well, often only sleeping for an hour before waking up for the rest of the night. According to a defense expert, this lack of sleep likely resulted in “non-REM parasomnia,” a sleep disorder whose sufferers can unconsciously perform random acts . Because of this disorder, the expert said, he was incapable of exercising criminal intent. And the jury agreed, finding Mitchell not guilty of the murder of his son.

You might think that this case, and more specifically, this defense strategy, is an anomaly. But the truth is, the so-called “sleepwalking defense” comes up every now and then. And it sometimes works. Here’s a look at some similar cases is which a defendant claimed he or she was sleepwalking while committing a violent crime:

  • In 1943, 16-year-old Joan Kiger experienced a delusional sleepwalking fit. Around midnight on August 16, Kiger had a nightmare in which an intruder was breaking into her family’s home. Determined to rescue her family, the teen took two loaded revolvers and shot her little brother, her father and wounded her mother. As she started to wake, she yelled, “There’s a crazy man in here who’s going to kill us all!” Kiger was charged with first degree murder, but was acquitted on the grounds of insanity after using sleepwalking as a defense.
  • In 1981, Steven Steinberg stabbed his wife 26 times with a kitchen knife. According to Steinberg, he did not intend to murder his wife. No, what really happened was that he was rendered temporarily insane because he was sleepwalking. Psychologist Dr. Martin Blinder backed up Steinberg’s assessment, categorizing the murder as a “dissociative reaction.” And this defense worked! Steinberg was found innocent.
  • Then there was the case of Kenneth Parks. In 1987, 23-year-old Parks, who was married with an infant daughter, appeared to be everything a man in his shoes should be. But behind closed doors, Parks was a compulsive gambler who embezzled money at work to keep up with his secret habit. After getting fired, Parks apparently intended to tell his in-laws, who he was close with, about his financial woes. The day before the big reveal, though, he drifted to sleep and, as you might guess, all sleepwalking hell broke loose.
    • According to court documents, Parks drove 14 miles to his in-laws’ home – while sleeping – broke through a window, strangled his father-in-law and stabbed his mother-in-law to death. He then managed to get back in his car and drove to a local police station to confess. When questioned by the police, Parks couldn’t remember what had happened.
    • Quickly after he was charged with first-degree murder, Parks’ legal team began formulating his defense: Parks had committed his crimes during “non-insane automatism,” meaning he was acting unconsciously. As you might have guessed, the jury found him not guilty of first-degree murder, finding that he was not in control of his actions.


So, as you can see, this defense has worked in many bizarre situations. What do you think: Are people capable of killing while asleep without knowing it? Hear my thoughts in the latest Legal Lis podcast:

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