A man in Sweden charged convicted for raping a teenager has had his ruling overturned because he says he was sleeping at the time. Since his first trial, the man has maintained that because he was asleep, he was unaware of the sexual assault he had committed; he claims he only learned of his act after a DNA test showed that he was responsible for the teenager's pregnancy.
According to Sweden's the Local, the teenager has corroborated the man's story all along; she told courts she knew he was asleep at the time of the incident but she didn't resist because she wanted his wife to "wake up and leave him."
Despite their claims, the man, who is in his 50s, was convicted for raping a minor and received a two-and-a-half year prison sentence. But this week that conviction was overturned on appeal: The prosecutor did not provide sufficient proof that the man had not been asleep during the incident.
It's the second time in two years that a "sexsomnia" rape conviction has been overturned in a Swedish court. Cheryl G. Bader, an associate clinical professor of law at Fordham University, says sleepwalking defenses are most common in murder cases or other acts of violence, but they can come up in any violent criminal case, including sexual assault.
"Sleepwalking is within a group of parasomnias, or what scientists would call 'involuntary behaviors acted out while sleeping,'" she says. "So to the extent that it's involuntary, you're not legally culpable. Their has to be voluntary action, and there has to be intent."
Still, it's a hard defense to mount, and the decision is ultimately up to the jury. In these kinds of cases, a doctor or researcher typically testifies, explaining the involuntary nature of the sleep disorder.
"If you don't have a history of a sleep disorders, and if there's any motive or other evidence that would negate it, I think it's a difficult defense for a jury to accept," she says. "Even with a history, it might be difficult for a jury to accept. It would be up to the jury and whether they believe the expert and whether they believe the individual was acting while sleeping."
Bader explains that sleep itself is also hard to prove in these cases. "When people are acting while asleep, their eyes are generally open, and they often are completing very complex tasks," she says. "The brain is actually partially awake, so the person might drive somewhere even, or walk around completing very complex tasks. Unless someone has experienced an individual sleepwalking, it might be hard to accept that someone could actually commit an act like that while they're partially asleep."
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Parasomnia disorders are very difficult to prove after the fact, unlike insanity, where there are tests and methods of diagnosis. "Short of some history, it's hard to prove or disprove," says Bader.
However, that could change. As researchers learn more about parasomnia sleep disorders, they are working on developing more advanced ways to diagnose them, too. That could help attorneys lay out clearer cases to prove, or disprove, claims of violence committed during slumber.