Can you commit murder in your sleep? The unusual defense used in some violent crime cases

In the early hours of Sept. 1, 2017, Matthew Phelps called 911 to report that he may have stabbed his wife while dreaming.

The 29-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., said he awoke to find his wife, 29-year-old Lauren Hugelmaier Phelps, dead.

He told the operator that he’d gone to sleep after taking Coricidin cough & cold medicine and recalled having a dream. When he woke, he found his wife fatally stabbed on the floor of their bedroom, he told authorities.

“I have blood all over me and there’s a bloody knife on the bed and I think I did it,” Phelps says in the 911 call, which was released by authorities. “I can’t believe this.”

RELATED: 15 countries with the worst crime in the world

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15 countries with the worst crime in the world
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15 countries with the worst crime in the world

15. Italy: 3.5

Long associated with the Mafia, Italy has struggled to shake the influence of groups such as  Cosa Nostra in Sicily, 'Ndrangheta of Calabria (who are considered to be among the biggest cocaine smugglers in Europe), and Camorra in Naples. North African gangs have recently extended activities in Italy due to the unprecedented refugee crisis that peaked in 2015. The crisis led to a huge black market in people smuggling to Europe. Italy was a key entry point for many groups.

12. Mali: 3.4

Civil war between Islamist groups in the North of Mali and the government broke out in 2012. A peace deal was signed in 2015 but violence has recently flared up again in the country. The fighting has allowed organised crime to flourish. Charity International Action writes: "Illegal trade in drugs, weapons and goods, and people trafficking across the Sahel, has been a powerful dynamic in the formation of armed groups in northern Mali."

12. Mozambique: 3.4

The southern African country of Mozambique borders six other countries and also has a coast on the Indian Ocean, making it a hub for illegal trafficking. The US State Department assessed the crime and safety risk of the country as "critical" in its most recent report on the country and said: "All borders, including the eastern coast and airports, are porous and facilitate trafficking drugs, humans, and illicit wildlife products. While lack of opportunity prevents most illegal traffickers from settling in Mozambique, the constant flux of people and goods brings with it nefarious elements and businesses."

12. Guinea: 3.4

One of the poorest countries in the world and prone to political instability, the West African country of Guinea-Bissau is a playground for drug traffickers. "Cocaine-related corruption has clearly undermined governance in places like Guinea-Bissau," a 2013 UN report said, which noted that the country's "annual economic output is less than the value of some of the cocaine seizures made in the region."

Guinea has a sea border and cocaine is shipped to the country from South America. From there, it is smuggled into Europe. The UN report says that methamphetamines are also smuggled to East Asia via the region. The Guardian noted last year that drug smuggling has declined since its peak in the mid-2000s but the illegal trade in Guinea remains stubborn.

10. Pakistan: 3.3

Organised crime is closely linked to terrorism and terrorist groups in Pakistan, with an established link between the Taliban and drug trafficking in the country. Reporting from Karachi in 2009, the New York Times wrote: "The police here say the Taliban, working with criminal groups, are using Mafia-style networks to kidnap, rob banks and extort, generating millions of dollars for the militant insurgency in northwestern Pakistan."

Most of the heroin produced in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer, is exported through Pakistan, which has a sea border, unlike its neighbour.

10. Yemen: 3.3

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab region and is locked in a civil war that has involved powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia since 2015. This mixture of poverty and instability makes the country ripe for corruption and smuggling.

The UN said in 2010 that Yemen's two biggest problems are "illicit trafficking (particularly of drugs) and criminal networks (including terrorism and its financing)." As with Pakistan, the two are thought to be linked. However, the US state department says: "The threat of regional terrorism dramatically overshadows that of organized crime."

9. Peru: 3.2

Peru is the world's second-biggest cocaine producer and, as a result, has a vibrant network of narco gangs and drug traffickers. Illegal logging and the trade in timber is also a problem in the country. However, unlike other countries on the list, levels of violence related to organized crime in Peru are relatively low.

Writing in the Global Americans magazine, research professor Evan Ellis said: "Transnational organized crime in the country is remarkably disorganized."

Ellis said that the industry is largely controlled by "seemingly nameless "family clans," collaborating and occasionally competing in a complex criminal economy."

8. Chad: 3.1

As with many other countries on the list, terrorism is linked to organized crime in Chad. Islamist group Boko Haram is active in the country and are active smugglers.

"The country’s long, porous borders leave it vulnerable to the smuggling of goods and people across the Sahel," according to the US State Department. "Along Chad’s southern and western borders, including Lake Chad, the contraband goods market consists largely of foodstuffs, cigarettes, oil, gold, and other household items smuggled into the country to avoid import duties.

"Across Chad’s northern desert and along the Sudan/Chad border in the east, smuggled items include drugs and weapons. Drugs, mainly cannabis and cocaine, are transported via Chad and Sudan to the Arabian Peninsula."

6. Colombia: 2.9

Colombia has a long history of organized crime, chronicled in the Netflix series Narcos that traced the history of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Colombia remains the world's number one cocaine producer, despite the death of Escobar in 1993 following year's of operations against him by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

BI's Christopher Woody wrote earlier this year: "Rebels from the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reportedly encouraged farmers to plant more coca [the key ingredient in cocaine], believing that areas with high production would receive more benefits from the government under the peace accord the government and the rebels signed in November."

6. Jamaica: 2.9

Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the leader of Kingston's Shower Posse gang, was dubbed "one of the world's most dangerous drug traffickers" by the US before his extradition to America to face drug trafficking charges in 2011. Gang problems persist in Jamaica and it "remains the Caribbean’s largest source of marijuana for the United States as well as a transit point for cocaine trafficked from South America," according to the state department.

5. Guatemala: 2.7

Guatemala has the tenth highest murder rate in the world, according to the UN, largely due to its gang problem. The country's two main gangs are the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street gang. Both established strong footholds in the country after the end of its civil war in 1996 and both make their money through extortion of local businesses and drug trafficking.

The International Crisis Group says: "Estimated to number 54,000 in the three Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the gangs’ archetypal tattooed young men stand out among the region’s greatest sources of public anxiety."

4. Mexico: 2.6

Mexico is the main gateway for illegal drugs being smuggled into the United States and this trade has sparked bloody wars between narco gangs in the country. A US congressional report from April states: "The DEA stated that Mexican drug trafficking groups are working to expand their presence, particularly in the heroin markets inside the United States. Over the years, Mexico’s criminal groups have trafficked heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, and increasingly the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl."

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the boss of the notorious Sinola cartel, Mexico's most powerful narco gang, was extradited to the US in January. Law enforcement organizations hope this will help Mexican authorities tackle problems in the country.

3. Venezuela: 2.5

A history of poverty has led to the rise of gangs and organised crime in Venezuela. Caracas is the deadliest city in the world, with an estimated 130.35 homicides per 100,000 residents, and much of that is down to gang-related violence.

Venezuela has recently been gripped by protests against President Nicolás Maduro and some commentators fear that the instability could give organized crime a further foothold in the country. Oxford academic Annette Idler wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year: "Venezuela’s crumbling political order could have a spillover effect on regional stability and Colombia’s fragile peace — as well as encourage the global expansion of transnational organized criminal and terrorist networks."

2. Honduras: 2.4

As with Guatemala, Honduras' position in central America makes it a key corridor for trafficking drugs produced in South America into the United States. This has led to powerful gangs operating in the country.

"In Guatemala and Honduras... there is a clear link between contested trafficking areas and the murder rates," the UN wrote in a recent report. "Some of the most violent areas in the world lie along the Honduran coast and on both sides of the Guatemalan/Honduran border."

While most of the gang-related activity in Honduras is related to drug trafficking, the UN notes that "the groups involved have long engaged in a range of criminal activities, from extortion to migrant smuggling. Though their role in crime and corruption was less visible before the recent boom in cocaine trafficking, they have long been a drain on the nations of Central America."

1. El Salvador: 1.5

The central American country of El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the UN, down to its deep-rooted gang problem. As with Honduras and Guatemala, a history of poverty and civil war, combined with its location between South and North America, has made El Salvador a hot spot for organized criminal gangs trafficking drugs.

However, the New York Times reported last year that gangs such as MS-13 that operate in El Salvador are "not sophisticated global cartels but mafias of the poor."

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An autopsy revealed Lauren had 123 stab wounds, including 44 around her face and neck.

Phelps, an aspiring pastor who’d been married less than a year, has since been charged with first-degree murder. He’s pleaded not guilty.

Following Lauren’s death, the Bayer Corporation, which manufactures Coricidin, said, “There is no evidence that Coricidin is associated with violent behavior.”

The medication, however, does list nightmares and severe hallucinations on its list of rare side effects.

Phelps is just one of several people to have claimed that they committed crimes, including extremely violent ones, while sleeping.

Dr. Allen Towfigh, a neurologist and the director of New York Oncology and Sleep Medicine, said disorders may allow people to participate in complex behaviors while sleeping.

“Fortunately I have not had any patients who committed homicide, but I have certainly had patients who under various circumstances have engaged in violent behavior [in their sleep],” Towfigh told InsideEdition.com. “One of my patients, who had a black belt in martial arts, broke down his entire dresser cabinet.”

Towfigh explained that a person’s stage of sleep can alter how much they might remember about what they did while asleep. But when drugs are introduced, things can get even more complicated, he said.

Numerous attorneys have used the “Ambien defense” in cases that range from DUI to murder. Ambien is a drug used to treat insomnia.

Charlie Saine, also of North Carolina, was accused of assaulting his wife and shooting at police after having three to four drinks and taking Ambien in January 2014. He was initially charged with four counts of assault with a deadly weapon but was acquitted in March 2016 after using the “Ambien defense.”

“Patients will take the medicine and have either alcohol before or afterwards and engage in these complex behaviors,” Towfigh said. “So it does happen and it’s believed to cause somewhat of a disconnected or dissociative state where you’re somewhat awake in some areas but asleep in others. It allows you to enter this skewed state.”

The defense doesn’t always work, however. That same year, a Philadelphia nun, 41-year-old Kimberly Miller, claimed she was “sleep driving” after drinking “altar wine” and taking Ambien. She claimed she had no recollection of ever getting into her car.

Nonetheless, she was later convicted of drunken driving.

Towfigh added that as a defense, he believes Ambien is becoming less justifiable.

“It’s so well known to cause this that patients should know better and shouldn’t be taking Ambien and drinking in combination,” he said.

In a statement to InsideEdition.com, Sanofi, the pharmaceutical company behind Ambien, said its priority is the safety of patients who take it.

"It’s always important for patients to read the medication guides for any medicines they are prescribed whether it’s the brand name product or a generic as the profiles of each medicine can be different." the Sanofi statement read. "Specifically, for Ambien, it is important that patients only take Ambien and Ambien CR as directed by their physician.

"The label clearly states Ambien should only be taken immediately before bed and only when you can get a full night’s sleep (7-8 hours). The medication guide also states not to take Ambien if you drank alcohol that evening or before bed."

It is not clear whether Phelps had any other drugs or alcohol in his system at time of his wife’s murder. 

Phelps’ attorney, Joseph Blount Cheshire, has asked that the public withhold judgment on the case until more developments are made.

“There’s a lot to this story, I believe, that will be told in the future,” Cheshire said in a previous statement. “Matthew’s family and all of us at my firm really send our deep condolences to the family of the young lady who died and to her family. It’s a very tragic situation, sad and tragic for both families.”

Cheshire did not respond to multiple requests for comment from InsideEdition.com.

In cases where medicines were not involved, some juries have agreed that defendants were asleep at the time of their crimes.

In 2006, Ken Parks was acquitted of the 1987 murder of his mother-in-law and the attempted murder of his father-in-law after his attorneys argued he was asleep.  

Parks, then 23, reportedly drove 15 miles while sleeping to the Canada home of his in-laws, Barbara and Denis Woods. He reportedly fetched a tire iron from his trunk and then used a key to get into the house.

He entered the couple’s bedroom, where he choked his father-in-law until he was unconscious, authorities said. He then beat his mother-in-law with the tire iron before repeatedly stabbing her. He also stabbed his father-in-law.

At some point while he was in the home, Parks reportedly picked up the phone in the kitchen and set it down again so that it was off the hook. He also ran to the bedroom of his sister-in-law — a teenager at the time — and stopped outside her door before running from the home, according to reports.

Lawyers for Parks said that when he later regained consciousness he had blood dripping from his hands, which were severely cut, and immediately drove to a nearby police station at 4:45 a.m., telling cops, “My God, I’ve just killed two people… It’s all my fault,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

His mother-in-law passed away from her injuries, but his father-in-law survived.

Parks said he didn’t remember the details of the attack and police said he seemed oblivious to the severed tendons in his hands when he showed up at the station, according to reports.

At the time of the attacks, he was reportedly under major stress after being fired from his job. Two months before killing his mother-in-law, his then-employer, Revere Electric, found out that he’d allegedly stolen more than $30,000 from the company and had gambled the money away. He was waiting to appear in court on fraud charges at the time of the attacks.

Parks, who was also reportedly suffering from severe anxiety and insomnia before the attacks, underwent a series of sleep and psychological tests after the murder. 

Although prosecutors called the defense “simply ludicrous,” Parks was found not guilty in a decision that was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

In another 2015 case, Joseph Mitchell suffocated his 4-year-old son and attacked his two older children in his home in September 2010, but claimed he had been asleep at the time.

Devon Mitchell, then 10, and Alexis Mitchell, who was 13, told investigators they awoke to find their father trying to cover their mouths or faces and had to fend him off, according to court statements.

Alexis said she remembered someone pressing her head into her mattress and possibly blacked out, only to be awakened by her brothers' cries, WRAL reported.

Mitchell’s attorneys said Mitchell simply walked away when his daughter elbowed and bit him. 

Mitchell then reportedly locked himself in his home office. When authorities arrived after the children’s grandfather called 911, Mitchell had self-inflicted cuts to his torso and neck.   

Mitchell’s attorneys called health experts to testify that he was suffering from stress and lack of sleep before the alleged crimes, causing him to have no recollection of the attacks, ABC News reported.

He was found not guilty of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder in 2015. 

Towfigh said crimes such as these can occur in the context of a perpetrator’s dream.

“In REM disorder there is common content of either an intruder breaking into the house or some threat to either the individual or the family and they will react to that perceived threat,” Towfigh said. “Anyone who is unfortunate enough to be in the bedroom or close by can become a victim of whatever dream plot that individual is experiencing.”

While Towfigh said it is possible for this to happen, the defense hasn’t always held up in court. 

Stephen Reitz went on trial after he killed his girlfriend, 42-year-old Eva Marie Weinfurtner, while on vacation in October 2001. Reitz, then 42, threw a flower pot at Weinfurtner’s head, which cracked her skull, and he then beat her repeatedly before stabbing her in the neck, according to reports.

He claimed he woke up and found her body at the foot of the bed after dreaming that he was fighting off an intruder. Reitz also told authorities the two had been drinking and using cocaine before the murder.

The defense argued Reitz had a history of mental problems and was capable of being violent while asleep, but the jury didn’t buy it. Weinfurtner’s family reportedly noticed bruises on her body in the months leading up to the slaying and encouraged her to leave him. 

Several jurors said the panel might have been convinced by a sleepwalking defense if Reitz had just thrown the flower pot, “but the attack that followed convinced them that his defense was implausible,” the LA Times previously reported.

Reitz was found guilty of first-degree murder.

In Phelps’ case, the details are still murky, but he could face the death penalty if convicted of killing his wife. 

Towfigh, however, said there are precautions individuals can take to help prevent irregular sleep behaviors.

“Try not to mix hypnotics and sleep aids with alcohol. Make sure you are going to bed if you are taking a sleep aid,” Towfigh said. “If you know yourself to have this tendency of having these kind of dissociative or disconnected states where you either sleep walk or sleep eat  then you should make your medical provider aware of that and take additional precautions to reduce the likelihood of having some [unfortunate] event like this occur.”

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