Defense Hints at Little-used Automatism Argument, Part 2 - Sparrow Law Firm

In our last post, we were talking about the trial of the North Carolina man who shot ten people in a nursing home. Eight of the victims died, and the defendant now says the jury should find him not guilty of murder. The trial will start Monday.

During jury selection, defense counsel asked questions about the prescription sleep aid Ambien and told at least one juror that the defendant had received a prescription for an antidepressant a couple of days before the killings. Commentators believe the defense is planning to mount an Ambien, or Automaton, defense.

One Ambien case North Carolina residents may recall involved a driver who was pulled over by the police. The man had been swerving and eventually crashed into a parked car. The officer’s exchange with his suspect was more than curious.

First, the man was wearing his pajamas. Second, he seemed alert, but his answers to the officer’s questions were not normal. Who is the president of the United States, the cop asked. Abraham Lincoln, the suspect answered.

This man had taken Ambien and was “sleep-driving.”

The technical term for the legal argument is automatism. The defendant, in a trance-like state — in this case, the result of the medications he had mixed with alcohol — is not aware or in control of what he is doing.

While counsel has only hinted at an automatism defense, the defendant has notified the court he plans to argue insanity and diminished capacity. Legally, an insanity plea involves the defendant’s ability to understand the consequences of his actions. The diminished capacity plea looks at his responsibility for his actions.

If the jury believes the defendant was insane, he would either be committed or ordered to undergo regular evaluations.

If the jury is persuaded by the automatism defense, the defendant could go free.

For defense counsel, though, it’s not as simple as pointing to the defendant, waving a couple of studies and saying to the jury, “The prescription sleep aid made him do it!”

Continued in our next post.

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