Sleepwalking Domestic Violence?

A Florida family says a choking incident was the fault of a sleep disorder.

Jan 9, 2009— -- Alyson Kaplan awoke suddenly early Sunday morning, struggling to breathe. She found her husband, Mark, above her, choking her with the string from her sweatshirt hood and yelling profanities.

She called the police and reported the incident. But days after his arrest, the Kaplan family of Coral Springs, Fla., is trying to convince authorities that her nightmare was literally part of her husband's bad dream -- a form of sleep violence similar to sleepwalking or sleepeating.

"He has no recollection whatsoever," Eric Schwartzreich, Mark Kaplan's lawyer, said. "He believes when his wife said that it happened, that something happened."

On Wednesday Alyson, 36, petitioned the automatic no-contact order issued between alleged victims and suspects in domestic violence cases and, according to Schwartzreich, she will advocate for no charges to be applied to Kaplan's arrest for battery by strangulation.

"They walked out of the courtroom, hand in hand," Schwartzreich said.

Schwartzreich maintains the whole incident can be blamed on a sleep disorder diagnoses Kaplan received last February at the Coral Springs Sleep Medicine Center of Florida.

"My client suffers from multiple sleep disorders -- sleep apnea, parasomnia," he said. "He sleeps with an oxygen mask most nights. This is a medical disability that he has and she's going to stand by him."

The community around the highly-ranked middle school where Mark Kaplan serves as principal might not accept the sleep violence explanation, according to reporting by the Miami Herald.

But sleep experts have certainly heard of stranger stories.

"It is not the first of its kind -- that is, a sleep-related violence attack by attempted strangulation," said Rosalind Cartwright, chairman of psychology at Rush University in Chicago and a long-time researcher of parasomnias.

That same incident, Cartwright added, was caused by sleep apnea arousing the person during the night.

Various accounts of strange parasomnias -- episodes of violence, eating, or sexual activity related to sleep -- have cropped up in recent years.

Sleep Eating, Stealing and Murder

Researchers documented in December one woman's habit of e-mailing friends and family during sleep. The e-mails were coherent enough that she accidentally started making dinner plans with friends.

Reports range from the common sleepeating to the rare sleepdriving from the effects of sleeping aids, to the extreme of rape.

In August 2007, a British jury cleared Kenneth Ecott of rape charges after hearing a defense of "sexsomnia," a term for a sexual parasomnia. Defendants have even been cleared for acts of burglary and murder with a parasomnia defense.

As in those cases, Schwartzreich is leaning toward the long-debated question of what a person's true feelings are in a dream.

"Things happen in their dreams that they don't want," Schwartzreich said. "Just because someone acts out on something in sleep doesn't mean that they want to do this."

Whether a parasomnia explanation could one day replace the fallback guilty by insanity defense remains unclear. For one, experts say cases of violent parasomnia are probably quite rare.

"I believe these sorts of events are relatively uncommon, although many events, such as hitting or choking and so forth may be going unreported," said Michael Mangan, a psychologist and faculty member at the University of New Hampshire, Durham.

"Violence is reported to occur most often in cases of sleepwalking disorder, REM behavioral disorder and in sleep terror disorder, all of which have a relatively low prevalence of 1-5 percent among adults," said Mangan, who wrote the book "Sleepsex: Uncovered."

Cartwright could also only guess at how common violent parasomnia really is.

Proving Parasomnia

"We really don't know," Cartwright said. "The last big survey on sleep-related violence was done in the U.K. on 5,000 people and got a rate of 2.1 percent," she added. "That the rate is escalating is suggested by the number of cases related to the use of the newer sleep meds [such as Ambien and Lunesta, especially if combined with alcohol]."

Schwartzreich said Mark Kaplan was taking an allergy medication at the time but has not heard one way or the other if this could affect his sleep.

Experts say whether an explanation of violent parasomnia and sleepstrangling will hold up in court could actually come down to physical evidence. Sleep experts can already evaluate a person to test for a parasomnia.

"It's certainly possible that his behavior occurred in sleep," Mangan said. "If this is indeed the case, then he would not have been in a state of mind such that he could form the conscious intention to harm her.

"However, to determine the likelihood that this is what actually happened would require an extensive forensic sleep study."