Are men getting away with rape by pretending they were asleep Rising number of attackers are trying extraordinary defence that they had 'sexsomnia'
22:00 GMT, 28 December 2012
22:11 GMT, 28 December 2012
Convicted: Actor Simon Morris claimed her suffered from 'sexsomnia' – but saw his claim thrown out and a verdict of guilty was returned
For bit-part actor Simon Morris, an appearance in the dock at Cardiff Crown Court last week was an opportunity to put his dramatic skills to the test.
Suave and smartly-dressed, the greying 42-year-old — whose usual roles are fleeting appearances in films and on stage, as well as a single part in TV soap Hollyoaks — insisted that he knew nothing of the events that led to a 15-year-old schoolgirl being raped at a house party in Wales.
In fact, Morris initially refused to accept that he had even had sex with the girl until police presented him with DNA evidence. To this day, he insists that at the time he was brutally violating the innocent teenager, he was asleep.
Thankfully for his victim, who was
herself asleep at the time the attack began, the actor’s claim was seen
for what it was: the pretence of a desperate man — or, as prosecutor Sue
Ferrier scathingly put it, a case of ‘acute thespian syndrome’. He was
found guilty of rape and is awaiting sentence.
The defence on which Morris relied
is, however, a recognised medical condition: sexsomnia. As the name
suggests, it causes sufferers to carry out sexual acts in their sleep.
It is related to other sleeping conditions, called ‘parasomnias’, such
as sleepwalking and night terrors.
In genuine cases, it often causes
great distress and embarrassment for those with it, the majority of whom
are male and remember nothing of what has occurred.
What’s more, their partners have to
cope with both fear and bewilderment: the sufferer’s eyes are typically
open, but usually with a curious staring quality about them.
The problem is that it is possible to
fake the condition. What’s more, when alcohol features — as it did in
the Morris case — it can be difficult to determine where memory loss is
due to the medical condition and when it has a more obvious, and
In recent years, a string of men
accused of rape and sexual assault have sought to claim they were asleep
and not in control of their actions when they attacked women.
In Morris’s case, he said he had no
knowledge of having sex with his victim, who had been put to bed by her
father after drinking too many cocktails at the birthday party in
September 2011. One might expect a degree of scepticism from juries
faced with the ‘I was sleeping’ defence, which has even featured in
cases of murder. (In 2009, retired steel worker Brian Thomas was
acquitted of strangling his 57-year-old wife Christine while asleep. The
judge called him ‘a decent man and a devoted husband’.)
Awaiting sentence: Morris was found guilty of raping a teenage girl at a party
However, of the 18 known rape cases
in which sexsomnia was used as a defence in British courts between 1996
to 2011, 12 ended in acquittals, one Scottish case was found ‘not
proven’ and only five ended in guilty verdicts. There have been at least
three further cases this year, though all have resulted in conviction.
The number of court cases in which
sexsomnia has featured is definitely on the rise, according to Keele
University’s John Rumbold, who is an expert in sleepwalking and its role
in crime. Nine of the 18 cases occurred between 2009 and 2011.
The increase raises serious concerns
about how jurors can be expected to determine when sexsomnia is genuine,
and when, as in the case of Morris, it is nothing more than a
calculated cover story.
So what is known about the cause and symptoms of this condition
While experts have long been aware of
individuals claiming to do strange things in their sleep, including
having sex, the term was coined by Canadian researchers in 2003.
The first known example of a man
being acquitted of rape after claiming he was suffering from sexsomnia
took place in Toronto in 2005. Jan Luedecke, 33, was accused of
attacking a woman after they both fell asleep at a party and she woke up
to find him having sex with her.
Matthew Walker, professor of
neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in
London, has acted as an expert witness in such cases, and treats couples
battling with the impact of the condition on their lives.
Caged: Zack Thompson claimed he was sleepwalking when he raped a girl in Portugal, but was sentenced to six years in prison at Nottingham Crown Court after finally admitting to the rape
He says sexsomnia is part of a group
of conditions called ‘non-REM parasomnias’ — because they happen in deep
sleep rather than the lighter REM (rapid eye movement) phase.
‘These sorts of parasomnia are
typically seen in children as things like sleepwalking and night
terrors,’ he says. ‘A lot of children grow out of them, but around 2-4
per cent of the adult population continue to have them.
‘In adults, these parasomnias can be
more complicated. People tend to do things like sleep eating: they will
go downstairs and eat masses and masses of food and have no recollection
of doing it.
‘Sometimes, they will do inappropriate things, and I’ve seen one sufferer who managed to get in a car and start driving.’
Typically, he says, the activity unfolds during the first third of the night when the majority of deep sleep occurs.
At this stage, the front part of the
brain, responsible for planning and logic, is so deeply asleep it
doesn’t function, but the limbic system — responsible for basic urges —
appears to wake up.
And that is when the action, whether it be raiding the fridge, unscrewing lightbulbs or having sex, unfolds.
‘The people I see are often couples and usually both are very distressed,’ says Professor Walker.
‘The person doing it has no recollection of doing it, and it’s usually not much fun for the person having it done to them.
‘The sex is usually loveless and more
aggressive. There are some people who even kill in their sleep. But
when people commit violent acts, it is very rare.’
And what typifies them, he says, is
that the violence isn’t planned in any way, and the victim is normally
right next to the attacker.
‘People with these parasomnias cannot make plans or judgements,’ the professor explains.
So it’s highly unlikely that somebody
would get up, get dressed, find a knife and set out to kill, just as it
is unlikely that a man would get out of his own bed and into somebody
else’s to commit rape.
‘I have to say I think some people
have caught on to this as an alibi,’ Professor Walker warns. It seems
his concerns are well-founded. Earlier this year, 20-year-old Zack
Thompson, from Newark, Nottinghamshire, who claimed he was sleepwalking
when he committed rape, was finally jailed after admitting his defence
Yet for two-and-a-half years, he’d
maintained that he had no recollection of attacking a fellow
holidaymaker in Portugal in 2009.
It was only when a psychologist — an
expert in sleep-related disorders — concluded his amnesia was down to
the effects of excessive drinking and not sleepwalking that he changed
his plea to guilty.
The strain his claim of sexsomnia put
on his victim, who was 17 at the time, was made painfully clear in a
statement released by her family following the verdict.
‘When this happened to her, she was
still a child and struggled to grasp the enormity of what had happened
to her,’ the family said. ‘She has had to grow up very quickly, and has
had to deal with feelings and emotions that no young woman should have
‘He (Thompson) could have put an end to this at any point by taking responsibility for what he did.’
Nightmare: A 30-year-old man spoke to The Mail about his torment after he was cleared of rape after being asleep
Of course, some people do genuinely
suffer from the problem. During this investigation, the Mail spoke to a
man in his 30s who found himself standing in the dock accused of raping a
teenager five years ago. He was cleared by a jury in just two hours
after they accepted that he had been asleep, and was not responsible for
The case was reported at the time, but the now-married father has agreed to speak to us on condition that his name is not used.
At the time of the attack, he had
just returned from military service overseas, was stressed, tired and
jet-lagged, and attended a party at which he drank large amounts of
Partygoers bedded down on the floor
in one room of the house where the party had taken place, and the court
was told the attack may have unfolded after he was nudged in his sleep.
(Experts believe this is often the trigger for a sexsomniac incident.)
The girl woke in the early hours to
find the defendant lying naked on top of her, screamed, then watched as
he walked into the garden. He did not ‘wake up’ until he found himself
standing naked outside the local train station, with no idea how he got
All quite extraordinary. But an
expert told the court that the young man had been exposed to all the
factors — alcohol consumption being one — that increased the chances of
In addition, evidence was heard that
he had demonstrated other parasomnias and sexual activity in his sleep
before. He ground his teeth in his sleep as a child, sleepwalked as an
adult, and was told by a girlfriend he’d once fondled her in the night.
‘It was an absolutely terrible time
for me and has completely changed my life,’ he says. ‘Looking back, I
think what happened to me was that several things came together to
create the perfect storm.
‘I was tired, I had just come back
from deployment, there were people lying around me, I’d been drinking
quite heavily and was used to sleeping on my own.’
He only found out what he’d done when he returned from the station.
‘It was such a total shock, so weird.
I knew that something had happened, because it was people I trusted
telling me; but I was so dazed, I just didn’t know what to do.
‘Up until that point, I’d lived my
life trying to do the right thing, so to have that happen so out of my
control took something away inside of me.’
'If i ever saw her again, I'd hang my head in shame'
He realises that the events of that
night must be equally agonising for the victim, but he says that at
times afterwards he felt suicidal.
‘As I said to the police at the time, if I’ve done this I deserve to get sent down,’ he says.
‘I feel terrible about everything
that has happened. If I saw her in the street, I would hang my head in
shame, I haven’t got words to describe how I feel.’
He has lived in fear of it happening again, and has given up drink to lessen the chances.
‘For ages, I was terrified whenever I went to bed,’ he admits.
Professor Colin Espie, Emeritus
Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Glasgow, says
alcohol makes it hard to know when cases are real or faked — a key point
given that of the 18 incidents since 1996, alcohol was involved in 14.
‘Alcohol does not mean it is not
genuine — it just makes it more difficult to evaluate the situation. And
the fact that people don’t remember anything doesn’t prove they are
asleep,’ he says.
So how common is the condition
‘Of all the phenomena that occur in deep sleep, sexsomnia is the rarest,’ he says.
At his sleep clinic, he estimates he
sees roughly 40 people a year suffering from an extreme form of
parasomnia and, of those, only one or two would exhibit sexsomnia. He
says further research is needed to understand the problems better.
Back in London, Professor Walker stresses that anyone using sexsomnia as a defence must be carefully scrutinised.
‘There are certain things I think are required for this condition to be genuine,’ he says.
‘I’ve never seen anyone with
sexsomnia and nothing else: usually they have got a history of night
terrors or sleep walking or other activity like that, and often from
childhood. Often there is a family history as well.
‘Although, I suppose, theoretically,
someone could sleepwalk into someone’s room, get into bed with them and
have sex with them, I’ve never seen a case with that many logical
processes. I would think that would be vanishingly rare.’
Fortunately for the teenage victim of
Simon Morris, jurors realised the claim of sexsomnia was nothing more
than a desperate attempt to avoid justice.
But if more copycats cynically adopt
the defence, then it is obvious that increasing numbers of other already
traumatised women will endure needless misery.