B.C. man not guilty of stabbing his wife as he was ‘effectively asleep,’ court rules
A BC man who stabbed his wife in the back with a kitchen knife was found not guilty because he was in a state of automatism — a term used to describe unconscious, involuntary behavior.
According to a BC Supreme Court ruling, Jean-Luc Charles Perignon stabbed his wife, Debra, to death after an Easter Monday dinner at their Sunshine Coast home in April 2017. Perignon claims he was in a state of automatism after hearing about the attack had consumed alcohol and prescription drugs.
The most likely explanation for Perignon’s actions, the judge ruled, was that they were “entirely involuntary because they happened while he was effectively asleep.”
According to the verdict, Perignon’s wife opened the front door of their home around 10pm on Easter Monday to let the dog out when she heard her husband’s footsteps.
“She never saw him, nor did she hear him say anything,” the verdict said. “She felt a ‘pop’ in her back and realized she had been stabbed. She grabbed the knife behind her back and pulled it out herself, badly cutting her thumb.”
Perignon testified that his memories of that night blended together. He was on an antidepressant and his usual mix of opioids to manage pain. Ten minutes before bed he took zopiclone, a non-benzodiazepine commonly prescribed for insomnia.
He also drank three or four glasses of pastis, an anise-flavored liqueur, around mealtime.
He recalls taking off his shoes and socks before going to bed and experiencing back pain.
“His next memory is of his wife as she lay on the floor in front of him screaming in pain,” the verdict reads. “He remembers seeing the kitchen knife on the floor next to her. He was shocked.”
The verdict said Perignon had taken opioids for pain and a benzodiazepine for insomnia after two car accidents. Guidelines banning the prescription of benzodiazepines with opioids went into effect in June 2016.
Perignon’s doctor told him he needed to stop one or the other, and he opted for the painkillers and abstained from benzodiazepines because of his insomnia.
He was in withdrawal, the verdict said, and tried various medications for his insomnia, but to no avail.
In January 2017, he was prescribed zopiclone, a drug not in the benzodiazepine family but “said to have similar pharmacology” and poses a risk when combined with opioids. It is not recommended that patients take zopiclone for more than 10 days in a row, the ruling said.
After Perignon saw no improvement in his sleep, he was switched to a different drug and then went back to zopiclone. His doctor “recommended increasing the dosage by half a tablet at a time until it started to work,” the ruling reads.
Automatism as a defense rarely succeeds, says Richter
A psychiatrist testified that the amount he was taking before the seizure was “well above the recommended prescription range for this drug.”
When Perignon took zopiclone, he was also taking a “dangerously high dose of opioids.”
“[Perignon] was certain that he was in a state of impaired mental awareness, and more likely he was [in] an altered sleep state,” says one psychiatrist.
“Most likely he was in a state of complex sleep-related behaviors. As such, Mr. Perignon would be unaware of his actions, nor would he be able to articulate basic intentions.”
In the ruling, Judge Warren Milman said using automatism as a defense is rarely successful.
“Because the law assumes that people generally act voluntarily and are accountable for their actions, Mr. Perignon bears a heavy burden of proving that the ordinary presumption should not apply here,” the judgment reads.
Milman later says Perignon “did his persuasion to show that what he did was in fact involuntary”.
The verdict states that Perignon has not had contact with his former wife or their youngest daughter, who still lives with her, since the incident.