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Deadly dreams: from sleepwalking to murder

A Raleigh man claims to have killed his wife in his sleep after taking too much cough medicine. If the case goes to trial, the defense can only hope to convince the jury of his innocence.

Matthew Phelps stands in the courtroom during his first appearance. Ethan Hyman--The News & Observer/ AP (Courtesy of Google Images)

A recent 911 call tells the story of a Raleigh man who awoke to find himself covered in blood, his wife dead on the floor, and a knife on the bed. The man, Matthew Phelps, explained to the 911 operator that he believed he had killed his wife. Phelps used the term “believe” not because he was uncertain if she was dead, but because he claimed to have unintentionally killed her in his sleep. The 911 call included an explanation that he had taken too much cough medicine, specifically Coricidin Cold and Cough.

The Raleigh Police Department charged Phelps with First Degree Murder that same night, September 1, 2017. In North Carolina, structured sentencing for First Degree Murder provides only two sentencing options, regardless of previous criminal convictions: the death penalty or life without parole. This means that, at a minimum, Phelps will be facing life without parole if his case goes to trial.

For some people, life in prison may seem just. For others, sentencing a man to life in prison, or even death, for something he was not aware he was doing seems extreme. Still, for others, the defense of claiming that one was sleepwalking or “overcome by medication” seems like all too simple of a scapegoat.

[I]f Phelps can convince a jury that the medicine created a lack of willful or deliberate behavior, then he may be convicted of a lesser crime or even acquitted.

It is common for criminal law professors to use the case Regina v. Parks to teach a concept known as “scienter.” The term is defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as the “defendant’s previous knowledge of the cause which led to the injury complained of.” Article 6, §14-17 of the North Carolina General Statutes includes the elements of First Degree Murder. Within those elements, the General Assembly included the necessary scienter needed for one to be found guilty of first degree murder—“willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing.” Based on these mental state requirements, if Phelps can convince a jury that the medicine created a lack of willful or deliberate behavior, then he may be convicted of a lesser crime or even acquitted.

Phelps’ alleged cough medicine nightmare raises a scienter issue similar to the one presented in Regina v. Parks. In 1987, Kenneth Parks drove 14 miles to his in-laws’ home where he knocked his father-in-law unconscious, beat his mother-in-law with a tire iron, and then stabbed them both repeatedly. His father-in-law survived, but his mother-in-law did not. The events that night led Kenneth Parks to a police station, where he seemed unaware that he had severed several tendons in both of his hands during the knife attack. Testimony about his mental state at the police department, as well as evidence showing his close relationship with his in-laws and a history of sleep disorders within his family eventually led to Parks’ acquittal.

The Parks case is hardly the only example of scienter issues surrounding sleep-related crimes. Cases involving murder while sleeping date back to the mid 1800’s in the United States. In 1847, Albert Tirrell was acquitted of slitting a prostitute’s throat and burning down her brothel after his attorney convinced the jury that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker and had committed the acts while asleep.

In Kentucky in the 1870s, a man was acquitted of murder on appeal after presenting evidence of his history of sleepwalking, as well as the fact that he was sleep-deprived on the night of the incident. This evidence was initially withheld from the jury. The case was Fain v. Commonwealth, and the defendant had been sleeping in the lobby of a hotel when a porter tried to wake him. The man responded to the porter’s shaking by drawing a gun and shooting him multiple times. Testimony was offered that Fain expressed great sadness when the situation was later explained to him.

In State v. Bradley, a defendant in Texas won on appeal after he fatally shot his girlfriend in the middle of the night. The defendant had concerns that an enemy would attack him while he was sleeping, so he slept with a gun hidden under his pillow. When he was startled by noises in the middle of the night, he sprang into action and fired multiple shots. When he calmed himself, he found his girlfriend dead at the foot of the bed.

[D]efendants who turn themselves in and show remorse tend to be more successful than defendants who show any signs of deceit or motive.

While these cases demonstrate that a jury may be persuaded by a sleep-related defense, other cases prove the defense is not always as successful. In 1994, Michael Ricksgers attempted to claim sleep apnea as a defense during his trial for fatally shooting his wife next to him in bed. In that case, prosecutors also presented evidence that his wife was planning to leave him. Ricksgers was convicted of the murder.

A couple years later, Scott Falater attempted to use sleepwalking and sleep deprivation as a defense after stabbing his wife 44 times and then drowning her in their backyard pool. The prosecution overcame the defense by presenting testimony from a witness who saw Falater giving commands to his dog during the incident at the pool, as well as showing that Falater had hidden evidence.

A particularly brutal attack in 2001 led to the conviction of Stephen Reitz. There, Reitz bludgeoned and stabbed his lover to death and then claimed he was asleep for the whole ordeal. After prosecutors revealed a history of violence between the couple, including an incident where he threatened to stab her, the jury returned a guilty verdict in the 2004 trial.

This selection of cases seems to demonstrate that defendants who turn themselves in and show remorse tend to be more successful than defendants who show any signs of deceit or motive. These trends may bode well for Phelps. While Phelps and his wife had been married for less than a year, evidence at this point indicates the marriage was relatively happy. Phelps was studying missions in Bible College, while Lauren remained very active in their church. Neighbors said they were a nice couple and Lauren’s friends said Phelps seemed like a nice guy.

“[K]ids…said they were using Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold Pills to get stoned.”

While the couple’s seemingly happy relationship may prove to help Phelps’ case, the defense will still have to overcome Phelps’ blame of his wife’s death on one of the most widely used cough medicines in the United States. Phelps claims he took Coricidin Cough and Cold the night of the incident. That particular cough medicine is known to contain “DXM (dextromethorphan)—“a synthetically produced substance that is chemically related to codeine” and contained in more than 140 over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. The U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center noted in a 2004 Intelligence Bulletin, “One of the most frequently abused products containing DXM is Coricidin® HBP Cough & Cold.” In addition, a 2017 ABC News Special discussed the increasing abuse of the drug, noting, “[K]ids who spoke to ABCNEWS said they were using Coricidin HBP Cough and Cold Pills to get stoned.”

The product is made by Bayer, who has since released a statement offering its condolences and stating that it continuously monitors product safety. Bayer also stated that it had received no indication that the product could lead to violent behavior. Dr. Richard Stripp, a New York based toxicologist, told People Magazine that the drugs found in Coricidin can mimic the effects of PCP and other hallucinogenic drugs. While Dr. Stripp would not speculate as to the success of Phelp’s defense, he did say that he was aware of cases where people abusing PCP had committed murder. He also indicated that he was not aware of any such incidents involving Coricidin.

Phelps is next scheduled to appear in court on September 25, 2017. His attorney, Joe Cheshire, has expressed his condolences to the victim’s family but has asked the public to withhold judgment in the case until all the facts come out. Cheshire indicated that more information about the case would be forthcoming and that Matthew Phelps is also suffering through the tragic situation.

Whether you believe Matthew Phelps or not, one thing he told the 911 operators that night is undoubtedly true: Lauren Phelps did not deserve this.

Eric Ditmore
About Eric Ditmore (9 Articles)
Eric is a third year law student who serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Linden, NC., Eric received his undergraduate degree in education from Fayetteville State University. Before beginning law school, he was a high school teacher and a deputy with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. During his time at Campbell, Eric has worked with the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, the Fayetteville Police Department, and the law firm of Lewis, Deese, and Nance. His is interested in pursuing work in either family law or as a legal advisor for a law enforcement agency.