Man who killed his wife while sleeping goes free

Prosecution withdraws case against 'devoted husband' who suffered long-standing sleep disorder
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The Independent Online

A man who strangled his wife during a nightmare in the belief he was attacking an intruder walked free from court yesterday after the case against him was withdrawn.

Brian Thomas, 59, of Neath, south Wales, killed his wife Christine, 57, while they were holidaying in west Wales in July 2008.

At Swansea Crown Court yesterday the prosecution told the jury that it was no longer seeking a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity and that there would be no useful purpose in sending Mr Thomas to a secure psychiatric hospital. The court erupted into shouts of "Yes" as family members jubilantly greeted the outcome.

Paul Thomas QC, for the prosecution, explained the situation to the jury after a day-long adjournment in proceedings. "We are no longer seeking a special verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity," Mr Thomas said.

"We have a continuing duty to review the case and we took the opportunity yesterday to take stock of the situation. It is clear from the evidence that no useful purpose would be served by Mr Thomas being detained in a psychiatric hospital."

The judge, Mr Justice Davis, told Mr Thomas that, in the eyes of the law, he bore no responsibility for what he had done. He described him as a "decent man and devoted husband".

He added that, from his understanding of his character through what had come out in court, he may go away with a sense of guilt about what happened.

Brian Thomas's brother Raymond spoke of his relief and jubilation at the outcome as he left court. He said: "Family and friends are truly delighted. They were a loving couple and always like that together. He has always been a loving husband and a family man. This was a tragic, tragic episode and we are all very emotional."

Jurors were told at the start of the four-day trial that they could reach only two verdicts for the murder charge – not guilty, or not guilty by reason of insanity.

They heard that Mr Thomas accepted that he had killed his wife of 40 years, who had also been his childhood sweetheart. They were told that psychiatrists for the prosecution and the defence agreed that he suffered from a long-standing sleep disorder and he had been in a state of automatism at the time. That meant that, while he was asleep his mind was not in control of what his body was doing.

The court heard that the couple's two daughters said their father had been prone to episodes of sleepwalking, during which he had been known to act strangely.

The couple had travelled 60 miles to Aberporth in west Wales in their Peugeot camper van in July last year. They stopped for the night in a car park but were disturbed by youths doing wheel spins and handbrake turns.

As a result they moved to a pub car park for the rest of the night.

But Mr Thomas, who took medication for depression, had stopped taking his tablets some time before the holiday because they caused impotence. The couple had separate bedrooms at their home in Neath. Expert evidence during the trial suggested that he would have suffered worsening dreams and nightmares as a result of the withdrawal symptoms he would have been experiencing.

In a nightmare probably triggered by the earlier incident with the youths, Mr Thomas believed an intruder had broken into the couple's camper van.

During the violent nightmare he attacked and fought the intruder and got him in a headlock, only to wake and find he had strangled his wife.

Expert evidence from both sides previously made it clear that there was no purpose in sending Mr Thomas to a psychiatric hospital.

The jury was instructed by Mr Justice Davis to bring in a formal not-guilty verdict and Mr Thomas was freed after being held in custody since January.

Sleep disorders: Defence for a murder charge

*Somnambulism has been used as a defence against murder charges on a number of occasions in recent years. It is a sleep disorder typically characterised by walking while seemingly asleep. But it may include other activities such as dressing and undressing, moving furniture and even driving a car. The argument is that the individual is in a state manifested by automatism, and as such is not responsible for their actions.

In March 2005, Jules Lowe, 32, was found not guilty of murdering his father, Edward, 83, at their family home in Walkden, Manchester, after claiming the fatal attack took place while he was sleepwalking.

But sleepwalking is not the only defence. In a case in the US, a man who shot dead his wife but said afterwards he remembered nothing about the event claimed he was in a state of "confused arousal" caused by his severe sleep apnoea, a condition in which patients stop breathing during sleep and then suddenly restart breathing with a loud snore.

The jury rejected his defence and he was found guilty of murder. But in a second case, a man who had severe sleep apnoea and night terrors, who killed his wife, was cleared on appeal after two convictions.

Sleep specialist, Dr Chris Idzikowski, who was a witness for the defence in Mr Thomas's case, said he typically received one inquiry a week from lawyers seeking to use the automatism defence on behalf of their clients.