As Jury Selection Proceeds, Defense Hints at Little-used Argument - Sparrow Law Firm

The man who admitted to killing eight people and wounding two others in a North Carolina nursing home may ask the court and the jury to believe an unusual defense argument in his upcoming trial. Based on defense counsel’s questions during jury selection, legal experts say the defense may be mounting an “Ambien defense” to the multiple murder charges.

The defendant, 47, walked into a nursing home in March 2009 and started shooting. He killed seven residents and one nurse before a police officer confronted him in a hallway. The two exchanged fire; both were wounded. Another person at the home was wounded as well.

The possibility of an Ambien, or Automaton, defense became clear when defense counsel asked potential jurors about their personal experiences with Ambien, a prescription sleep aid, and Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug. Counsel also told the jury that the defendant had been prescribed the antidepressant Lexapro less than two days before the killings.

In earlier statements, the defendant’s attorneys said that he had mixed alcohol with prescription medications — one of which was Ambien — and, as a result, was not in control of his actions. If the jury agrees, they will not hold him legally responsible for the killings.

Ambien is one of those medications that have a list of side effects as long as your arm. The drug was the subject of a class action suit in 2006. Plaintiffs claimed the drug caused them to enter into trance-like states during which they engaged in everyday activities like driving or exaggerated activities, like binge eating. When the drug wore off, they had no memory of what they had done.

The Ambien defense wasn’t used until 2008, when a Charlotte attorney’s research overcame his initial reluctance to claim his client had blacked out because of the drug. He interviewed experts and reviewed literature. He became convinced that Ambien was linked to strange behavior in patients while they were asleep. He realized that these patients were neither conscious nor in control of their actions — nor culpable.

We’ll continue this in our next post.

Source:, “Stewart defense may try unusual tactic that drug caused actions,” 07/24/2011