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15. The Sleuth

Name: Michel A. Cramer Bornemann
Title: Lead investigator - Sleep Forensics Associates
Why they're interesting: The world's foremost expert on crimes committed during sleep

His job almost sounds fake: Michel A. Cramer Bornemann is the go-to investigator for legal cases involving parasomnias, an umbrella term for abnormal sleep behavior including sleepwalking and sex-somnia. When someone invokes the "sleepwalking defense" — meaning they plead not guilty on account of breaking the law in their sleep — Bornemann, a neurologist and former sleep-clinic director, is called in to suss out the situation: Was the defendant really unconscious? Do they have a history of parasomniac activity? Could they have taken precautions to prevent their mid-slumber rampage?

Answering these questions is a formidable challenge; it's impossible to determine, with certainty, whether or not a person was sleepwalking at a specific point in history. But no one knows the world of sleep crimes better than Bornemann. 

His formal experience as a sleep-crime investigator dates back to 2006, when he reached out to two other veteran sleep researchers, Carlos Schenck and Mark Mahowald. "I proposed that we develop a formal consulting group," Bornemann said, "to not only be a reputable un-biased objective scientific resource to the legal community, but to also document every criminal case as a means to further our understanding concerning the complexities and spectrum of sleep-related violence."

Bornemann's proposal went over well. With Schenck and Mahowald on board, he founded Sleep Forensics Associates. Over the past 12 years, SFA has consulted for both the defense and prosecution teams on 350 cases involving homicide, assault and battery, rape and theft. And, Bornemann says, a lot has changed since he got into the sleep-crime game.

"At first," said Bornemann, "much testimony related to parasomnias was not admissible in a court of law as the condition was considered novel and not widely accepted within the clinical community. Today, parasomnias have achieved widespread international scientific recognition given...As a result, courtrooms are more likely to consider allowing testimony related to [them]."

Sleep crimes might seem more like fodder for an episode of "Law & Order" than a problem to worry about in real life. But parasomnias should be part of the larger conversation about sleep health because poor sleep habits often set the stage for sleep-movement disorders to emerge. What's more, America's love affair with medicated sleep has given rise to a special class of Ambien-fueled sleep crimes. About 20 percent of Bornemann's caseload, he estimates, now deals with sleep-related violence as a side-effect of Ambien. But, whether or not prescription drugs are involved, sleep crimes represent a tricky fusion of science and the law. And that's why Bornemann works with lawyers and police around the world to figure out when "but I did it in my sleep" is a credible defense and when it's a just a convenient excuse. 


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