Trial: Child Abuse While Sleepwalking?

The defendant is visibly uncomfortable with the situation.

Trial: Child Abuse While Sleepwalking?

The defendant is visibly uncomfortable with the situation. A former public prosecutor is sitting in the dock in the Lübeck district court. He is accused of serious child sexual abuse against his own son. When presiding judge Helga von Lukowicz asked whether he wanted to testify in the trial, the man with thinning hair just shook his head silently. "Our client won't comment at all," says Johann Schwenn, one of three defense lawyers.

At the end of March 2019, the defendant, who was sleeping in a bed with his then eight-year-old son, is said to have performed sexual acts on the child. "He reached into the boy's pajama pants, touched his genitals and also the boy's anus," the lawsuit says. Shortly afterwards, the defendant is said to have left the boy's room. When his wife confronted him with the allegations the next morning, the defendant had no memory of the incident. He later claimed that he had committed the crime while sleepwalking. The lawyer turned himself in. His wife filed for divorce.

What experts say about sleepwalking

In principle, it is possible to do things while sleepwalking that do not correspond to one's own moral compass when awake, says Thomas Pollmächer, director of the sleep medicine center at the Ingolstadt Clinic, to the German Press Agency. When sleepwalking, motor activities occur during sleep without the person being fully awake. Most of the time these are everyday actions like walking around or moving furniture. The phenomenon typically occurs during deep sleep, usually in the first half of the night. Those affected may not remember the events or only very vaguely, says Pollmächer.

"When sleepwalking, our brain is still in the deep sleep stage, but our movement center becomes active," said Markus Specht, head of the center for interdisciplinary sleep medicine at the DKD Helios Clinic Wiesbaden. Massive outbreaks of violence are rather unusual for sleepwalkers, but cannot be completely ruled out. "In a large majority of cases, morally reprehensible or perhaps suppressed impulse breakthroughs do not occur."

Court questions witnesses

The first witness to testify before the Lübeck regional court is a former partner of the defendant. “When I heard about the allegations, I remembered similar situations in our partnership from around 20 years ago,” says the 42-year-old. She is also a lawyer. "There were several times where we had sex together even though he was sound asleep. I always tried to wake him up without success." She always referred to it as “sleepwalking sexual intercourse.”

After the witness found out about the allegations against her ex-partner in August 2019, she invited him to Hanover to talk about the situation. “But I had the impression that he hadn’t dealt with the problem before,” she says.

The court rejected requests from the defense and co-plaintiffs to exclude the public from the hearing for long periods. The applicants justified their demands by saying that the legitimate interests of the defendant and the injured party could be violated in the process. “We are not conducting secret negotiations here, that is against the law,” said von Lukowicz, explaining the chamber’s decision.

According to previous information from the Kiel public prosecutor's office, both they and the Schleswig-Holstein public prosecutor's office did not consider a conviction of the former public prosecutor to be likely. After successful so-called enforcement proceedings before the Higher Regional Court, the public prosecutor's office had to file charges in the case.

The trial is scheduled to continue tomorrow (9:00 a.m.). Five more days of negotiations are scheduled until February 14th.

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