The strange science of sleep behavior and one verdict: Guilty!

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Guilty as charged. Murder one. After eight hours of deliberation, a Phoenix jury returned this verdict last week in the murder trial of Scott Falater, 43, an engineer, family man and Mormon priest.

The facts were never in dispute. Falater killed Yarmila, his wife of 20 years, by stabbing her 44 times with his hunting knife before pushing her into the family swimming pool and holding her head underwater. Falater also hid the evidence: He wrapped his blood-drenched clothes and boots in a plastic bag, sealed the bag in a Tupperware container and stashed it in the wheel well of the family Volvo. He changed into pajamas and bandaged his hand, which had been cut in the struggle.

Case closed, right? No question. Why, then, did the jury deliberate for eight hours?

Scott Falater claimed he had no memory of any of the events surrounding his wife's death, that he was sleepwalking throughout the entire bloody event. When the police arrived to take him to jail, Falater came to realize he was dealing with the homicide division. "Does that mean my wife is dead?" Falater asked, making him either a tragically bereaved husband or a psychopath with a flair for acting and chutzpah to spare.

His attorneys argued that Falater was trying to fix the pump on the family swimming pool, prying loose a stuck O-ring with his hunting knife while asleep. They argued that he stabbed his wife when she startled him and interrupted his repair task. The defense case was bolstered by a bevy of experts in the field of sleep disorders.

Even if Falater was asleep, didn't he still murder his wife? Not necessarily. Although he admitted killing her, murder requires voluntary actions and the requisite intent. The jury had to decide whether it was possible for a person to stab someone 44 times and hide the evidence, all without waking up.

Doing something in one's sleep and not remembering the next day is hardly a rarity. Who hasn't reached over to turn off the alarm clock and not remembered it the next day? I know people sleepwalk because I did it as a kid. Mind you, I did not go after anyone with my Boy Scout knife. I do, however, remember being awakened by my parents as I dragged my bed across the room, dreaming I was tugging on my dog's leash. I outgrew sleepwalking; now I merely wake up screaming from time to time.

Sleep researchers estimate that 50 percent of children sleepwalk at least once. Ten to 15 percent do so repeatedly, mostly between ages 4 and 12. Sleepwalking episodes peak at around age 10. In adulthood, the prevalence drops to between 2 and 9 percent.

Reading about Scott Falater, I thought about locking up the kitchen knives. But to go from a few nocturnal wanderings or muffled shouts to stabbing one's spouse more than three dozen times seems a long way -- just how long was the question for jurors in a trial that put a spotlight on sleep disorder research.

A backwater of medicine until not too long ago, the study of sleep disorders is now a respected branch of medical research. It involves much more than randomized clinical trials of warm milk vs. counting sheep.

Researchers have identified more than 80 distinct varieties of sleep disorders. Sleepwalking is one variant of what sleep scientists call "parasomnias," a class of disorders that also includes "night terrors" (my nocturnal banshee screams), bed-wetting, nightmares and sleep-related bruxism, or teeth grinding. Sleep studies reveal that sleepwalkers experience a partial awakening about one to four hours after falling asleep, at the end of the first or second sleep cycle. This happens when they come out of what is known as stage IV NREM sleep. (Rapid eye movement, or REM, is associated with dreaming, in contrast to NREM, "non-rapid eye movement.") Sleepwalking episodes last from 30 seconds to 30 minutes and occasionally longer.

Advances in sleep research include the development of the polysomnograph, which allows researchers to study the brain waves of sleepers. Researchers have found that during sleepwalking episodes, sleepwalkers exhibit mixtures of brain-wave patterns, including those typically found in deep sleep, in the transition to waking, and in drowsy and waking states. Although the sleepwalker's body is able to move, the person's brain is not fully awake. Shakespeare captured this phenomenon in describing the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth:

"You see, her eyes are open."

"Ay, but their sense is shut."

What can a sleepwalker, whose brain is not fully in gear, accomplish? Sleepwalkers are clearly capable of quite complex tasks. Peter Fenwick, a sleep researcher at London's Institute of Psychiatry, has sleepwalking patients who have ridden horses, made breakfast, stripped wallpaper and repaired refrigerators. Sleepwalkers can have conversations, albeit disjointed ones.

A quick perusal of back issues of the medical journal Sleep reveals tales that are by turn puzzling, hilarious and frightening. There are "sleepeaters" who lose their table manners, waking up with hands slathered in spaghetti sauce or smeared with mayonnaise. One sleepwalking woman favored snacks such as buttered cigarettes and cat food sandwiches; an Italian sleepwalker ate his watch.

Sleepers not only can walk, talk and eat -- they can have sex, too. An article in the Archives of Sexual Behaviors last year described a man whose lover "became alarmed when she realized one night that while having intercourse in their darkened bedroom that the patient was snoring loudly." The woman noted that her lover's unconscious sexual repertoire was highly varied; while sleeping he was "more aggressive and dominant than was his custom while making love in the awake state" and was more prone to "talking dirty."

Not all sleepwalking episodes are chuckle-worthy. Dr. Clete Kushida, a sleep researcher at Stanford Medical School, estimates a 60 to 70 percent risk of injury during sleepwalking incidents. A Sydney, Australia, hotel is said to have banned sleepwalkers' conventions because of the damage caused by sleepwalking conventioneers. One 14-year-old boy got out of bed and sleepwalked to the kitchen. He sleepwalked out the kitchen door -- of the family's RV, which was barreling down a San Diego highway at the time.

Sleepwalking -- and sleep-talking, sleep-eating and sleep-sex -- are clearly real phenomena. But what of violence perpetrated by the sleepwalker, who remembers nothing the next day? Even Scott Falater told Connie Chung, "If I had been at home reading this in the paper ... it would have seemed like a pretty bizarre and flaky defense to me, too." Bizarre and flaky, indeed -- but not unprecedented.

The sleepwalking defense has been raised in 20 to 30 murder trials worldwide. In many, the defendants were acquitted, sometimes by reason of insanity. One of the most interesting cases involved a French detective who killed a man while on vacation. Called upon to help solve the crime, he produced definitive evidence that he, himself, had committed the murder while asleep.

When attackers are sleeping, they really seem to go at it. In the early '80s, another Arizona case involved a man who stabbed his wife 26 times; just last month, the Canadian Supreme Court upheld the seven-year sentence of a man from British Columbia who stabbed his wife 47 times. He hid the body, grabbed some money and a change of clothes and flew to Mexico, where, he claimed, he woke up.

To establish that Scott Falater had been sleepwalking during the brutal slaying, the defense trotted out a string of experts. The leading defense expert was Dr. Roger Broughton, a professor of neurology, director of the sleep disorders center at the University of Ottawa and the winner of a lifetime achievement award from the American Sleep Disorders Association. Bald, with a beard and glasses, Broughton could have been provided for the trial by central casting. He had only testified in one previous criminal case, but it was a doozy. In May 1987, Kenneth Parks of suburban Toronto arose from his couch, where he had fallen asleep watching "Saturday Night Live." He got in his car and drove 14 miles to the home of his in-laws, where he proceeded to pummel his father-in-law into unconsciousness and kill his mother-in-law, beating her with a tire iron and stabbing her five times. Parks was acquitted and Broughton got another line on his CV: "Homicidal Somnambulism: A Case Report."

Broughton was unflappable on the stand in the Falater case. Although he admitted that some of Falater's actions gave him "pause," he concluded after reviewing the complete record that sleepwalking was "by far the most probable" explanation for Scott Falater's actions the night of Jan. 16, 1997.

The defense experts went to great lengths to portray Falater as someone incapable of waking violence. "He's kind of nerdy," testified Falater's daughter Megan; he's "a nerd [who] wore that plastic pocket protector," said Falater's sister, Laura Healy. Falater's parents and sisters testified he had sleepwalked as a child. Colleagues testified about stress at work, which could have helped precipitate sleepwalking.

Another defense expert, Rosalind Cartwright, a psychologist with the sleep disorders service at Chicago's Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, said Yarmila Falater's slaying was "as pure a case as you can find of sleepwalking violence."

Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Clinic at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, is one of the nation's leading experts on sleepwalking violence. He refuses to get involved in criminal trials. For Mahawold, the adversary system forces a binary choice in cases that tend to be shaded in gray. "These cases inevitably end up as pissing matches between the lawyers," who, Mahawold says, "have no interest at all in finding the truth."

Why would experts get involved, knowing that they could end up drenched? In fact, the Falater case was marked by a bitter battle of the experts in which expertise, integrity and motivations were impugned. Defense experts were accused of falsifying the results from four nights Falater spent being studied in a sleep lab.

The defense experts testified at no charge, a fact that failed to impress the prosecution. "They're so quick to want to make this thing a cause cilhbre. They want to be part of this thing ... I submit to you that [their risumis] are nothing but steps to their shrines of self-indulgence," said prosecutor Juan Martinez.

If Rosalind Cartwright thought Falater's case to be pure, prosecutors were quick to point out contaminating and conflicting pieces of evidence. They underscored sources of potential marital discord, especially differences regarding Scott Falater's intense involvement with the Mormon church. Beyond trying to establish a motive, the prosecution put the whole field of sleep research on trial.

The jurors betrayed considerable skepticism regarding sleep research as a discipline. In questions permitted during the trial, one juror asked whether the study of sleep disorders relied more on speculation than on science. At a press conference following the announcement of the verdict, jurors keyed in on the actions of Falater they thought too complex and purposeful to be those of a sleepwalker. Why wasn't he jarred awake by his wife's screams? How could he have carefully put a bandage on his cut right hand? (He is right-handed.) Why did he need a hunting knife to fix the pool? How could he have sleepwalked for 45 minutes, a period defense experts acknowledged was exceedingly long?

According to Mahawold, medical expertise does not allow for a definitive answer in cases like Falater's. "Sleep studies can prove someone is a sleepwalker, as is 9 percent of the adult population. But that is only Part 1 of a two-part question. The second question is whether he was sleepwalking on the night of the murder. Only God can answer that."

God or a jury of Falater's peers, who didn't buy the act. Arizona prosecutors now must decide whether to seek the death penalty.

By Jeff Stryker

Jeff Stryker is a writer in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Jeff Stryker

Related Topics ------------------------------------------