Husband strangles wife but simply not guilty

Brian Thomas, 59, did not deny that he caused the death of his wife Christine, 57, whilst on holiday, so how is it that he was found not guilty?

Brian Thomas, who suffers from from a sleep disorder, strangled his wife while dreaming he was attacking an intruder in their camper van.  Thomas who was described as a devoted husband, strangled his wife while having a nightmare.  He dreamt that she was an intruder who had broken into the camper van at night.  The couple were on holiday at the time.  Earlier in the evening they had been disturbed whilst parked in a village car park at the seaside village of Aberporth, south-west Wales.

Thomas told officers at the time that "boy racers" had been performing wheel spins and handbrake turns in the car park, where he and his wife had first parked their camper van.  This was in July 2008. They were were so concerned that Thomas moved on to a pub car park.  This may have been the event which triggered the nightmare about being attacked by an intruder.

Apparently the defendant had a medical history including the need for medication for depression.  However it was suggested to the court that he stopped taking them when he and his wife went away in their van because they made him impotent .

Thomas was charged with murder.  So how was it that the jury were directed by the trial judge to simply return a verdict of 'not guilty'?

A recording was played of the 999 call he had made minutes after strangling his wife. He was recorded as saying "What have I done? I've been trying to wake her. I think I've killed my wife. Oh my God. I thought someone had broken in. I was fighting with those boys but it was Christine. I must have been dreaming or something. What have I done?"

Paul Thomas QC, for the prosecution, informed the Crown Court that "He became convinced that one of these youths had broken into the van and a fight erupted in which he grabbed one of them in an armlock but it must have been a dream, because there turned out to be no intruders and the person he had seized by the throat was his wife."

Ordinarily where there has been an unlawful killing the Crown Prosecution Service will bring a charge of murder and it is then open to the defence to put together their account of what happened and this may invite a plea of not guilty or one of the special defences to a charge of murder.  But this is not what happened in this case. At one stage the jury were informed by the prosecution "This is a highly unusual case. The defendant accepts he caused the death of his wife, but the prosecution do not seek a verdict of guilty to murder or manslaughter."

It became clear at an early stage that the mental capacity of the defendant was an issue and the jury were also told at one stage by the prosecution "Instead, very unusually, we seek what is called a special verdict – a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity."

It seems as though Thomas had been prone to episodes of sleepwalking and other sleep-disorder behaviours for almost 50 years.

Such special verdicts are rarely encountered for several reasons not least being the potentially serious consequences for the defendant which include the possibility of an order that the defendant be detained in a secure hospital as well as the stigma of being declared insane and a lunatic.

The legal test of insanity is set out in The McNaghten Rules.  The rules arise from a set of questions posed to to the House of Lords in Daniel M'Naghten's Case. May 26, June 19, 1843. following the attempted assassination of the British Prime Minister, Robert Peel, in 1812, by Daniel M'Naghten.

The rules have been a standard test for criminal liability in relation to mentally disordered defendants in common law jurisdictions ever since, with some minor adjustments. When the tests set out by the Rules are satisfied, the accused may be adjudged 'not guilty by reason of insanity'.  The sentence may be a mandatory or discretionary (but usually indeterminate) period of treatment in a secure hospital facility, or otherwise at the discretion of the court (depending on the country and the offence charged) instead of the usual custodial sentence.

In the case of Brian Thomas it seems the prosecution had a change of heart and subsequently indicated that they did not intend to pursue the issue of the defendant's sanity - no doubt because of the unique circumstances of the case and questions over whether there would be any benefit to the defendant.  However, the issue was not left alone entirely and the prosecution raised, as an alternative, the issue of 'insane automatism'.

Automatism is a general and complete defence to criminal responsibility and operates under the common law.

In general terms, it is a loss of control by themind’ over the movements of the muscles. In other words, the acts of the accused are, in effect, involuntary.  This goes to the heart of the defence, which is founded upon the basic principles of criminal liability, namely, the existence of what amounts to an actus reus and mens rea. It can be argued that automatism is a complete defence in that not only does it negate the mens rea but is also contrary to the accepted principle that the conduct or behaviour of the accused must be voluntary.  The criminal law is, after all, concerned with accountability and blameworthiness and the courts, by allowing this defence, are showing that it would be unfair to place the blame upon someone who is not properly responsible for their actions.

Examples of what might amount to automatism include spasms, reflex actions and convulsions as well as conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and cerebral tumours, which come under the definition of disease of the mind. 

The finding of 'insane automatism' will come to a special verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity'The same result as if the defendant had been found to be 'insane'.

In the case of Mr Thomas, the prosecution informed the court as follows "In other words, at the time of the killing the defendant was asleep and his mind had no control over what his body was doing."

The Prosecution went on to add "This was a case of insane automatism – because the sleeping disorder the defendant had suffered from since childhood was 'part of him' and not something that could be cured."

So again the question seems to have been raised as to whether in view of the unique circumstances, there was any benefit in going down this road as the outcome would be the same as if the verdict had been 'not guilty by reason of insanity'?  The defendant would not have been acquitted but probably made the subject of one of the special orders.

The significance was not lost on Mr Thomas's defence who raised the potential defence of 'non-insane' automatism. 

There is a distinction between insane and non-insane automatism.  In the case of insane automatism the defendant will be suffering from a disease of the mind from an internal source and the verdict will be ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’.  With non-insane automatism, if successful, the defence leads to full acquittal.   The defence pointed to the stress of the disturbance earlier in the evening by the 'boy racers' as being the cause of the loss of control and not the defendant's mental state.

In the end, it seems as though common sense prevailed and the prosecution took the rather unusual step of announcing to the trial judge that the prosecution did not intend to offer any further evidence in the matter to establish the charge against the defendant.  This left the trial judge no alternative but to assemble the jury and then direct them to return a verdict of 'not guilty'.



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