This year marks the 20th anniversary of the killing of Yarmila Falater by her husband, Scott Falater. Yarmila was stabbed 44 times, and then drowned in the couple’s backyard swimming pool in a Phoenix suburb. Scott, a devout Mormon, said he had a history of sleepwalking, and was unconscious during the attack – the sleepwalking defense. Two years later, a jury rejected the defense, and convicted Scott of first degree murder. While no motive for the killing was established, the jury verdict was likely influenced by the fact that Falater tried to conceal evidence of the crime. He remains in prison, where he continues to deny any memory of the events.
Strange as the defense may seem, it has been raised, in some cases successfully, over a long period of time:
- In 1982, Steven Steinberg was charged with murdering his wife, who died after being stabbed 26 times with a kitchen knife in their Scottsdale home. At his trial, Steinberg raised the sleepwalking defense. He was acquitted after a jury trial.
- Stephen Reitz was accused of murdering his lover when vacationing on Catalina Island back in 2001. His parents testified that Reitz had been a sleepwalking since he was a child. The jury rejected the sleepwalking defense, which was countered by testimony that Reitz had a history of violence toward the woman.
- In 1994, a Pennsylvania man, Michael Ricksgers, was convicted of murdering his wife. Ricksgers said the murder was an accident, occurring during a sleepwalking episode, which was caused by sleep apnea. The prosecutors presented evidence that he was upset over the fact that his wife planned to leave him. A guilty verdict led to a sentence of life without parole.
- In the 1920’s, Isom Bradley was convicted of murdering his mistress by shooting her while the couple were in bed. The conviction was reversed on appeal because evidence of the possibility of Bradley being asleep at the time was excluded at trial and not presented to the jury.
- In what is probably the earliest sleepwalking defense case in the United States, Albert Tirrell was charged with murdering a prostitute in Boston. He was a chronic sleepwalker, and was acquitted of the charge. Interestingly, evidence in the case included not only the fact that Tirrell slit the woman’s throat, but that he also set the brothel on fire, and fled to New Orleans after the attack.
Two things appear clear: first, the sleepwalking defense can be raised, and raised successfully in some cases; and second, no one can predict with certainty the outcome of a jury trial!
Law Offices of David A. Black
40 North Central Avenue #1850
Phoenix, AZ 85004