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'Effectively asleep': Sleepwalking B.C. man found not guilty for stabbing wife in the back

The Sunshine Coast man, charged with aggravated assault for stabbing his wife with a kitchen knife, was found not guilty after a "cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol" left him in a state of automatism, a Supreme Court judge has found.
Justice Warren B. Milman painted a picture of a man who, broken by multiple injuries, had turned to a long list of prescribed drugs to deal with chronic pain and insomnia.

A B.C. man charged with aggravated assault for stabbing his wife with a kitchen knife has been found not guilty after a “cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol” left him in a state of automatism, a Supreme Court judge has found.

The decision, handed down Jan. 27, 2023, turned on Sunshine Coast resident Jean-Luc Perignon’s mental state at the time of the 2017 Easter dinner attack. Drawing on medication records, testimony from psychiatrists, family members and doctors, Justice Warren B. Milman painted a picture of a man who, broken by multiple injuries, had turned to a long list of prescribed drugs to deal with chronic pain and insomnia.

“Although it is possible that he acted intentionally despite that impairment, the more likely explanation for his conduct is that it was entirely involuntary because it occurred while he was effectively asleep,” ruled the judge.

A history of pain, insomnia and opioids

To explain what happened in 2017, the judge turned to Perignon long struggles with injury and the resulting insomnia, pain and medication that came with them.

Perignon was involved in two motor vehicle accidents and one incident where he was struck by a car while crossing a street in Montreal. That left the man with chronic insomnia and dependent on opioids “to control his pain,” wrote the judge.

In 2006, Perignon moved to B.C.’s Sunshine Coast as a way to alleviate his pain symptoms, the judge wrote, but the man’s consumption of bromazepam for insomnia “continued unabated.”

In 2016, a change in professional standards from the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons prohibited doctors from prescribing benzodiazepines or sedative hypnotics together with opioids. Perignon’s doctor told him he had to choose one or the other, the judge wrote.

At the time, the man’s wife had just lost her job, and because Perignon decided he had to keep working, he chose to stick with the painkillers. A later document issued by the college noted the sleeping medication should have been tapered off; by ignoring that recommendation, it prompted Perignon to go into withdrawal.

“His insomnia returned with a vengeance. He recalls having tremors,” the ruling states.

He tried other drugs to help him sleep, and his doctor appeared to be at a loss on what to do, court documents state. Perignon’s wife later said his moods had become volatile, that he said “strange things unpredictably.”

In 2017, Perignon’s doctor prescribed him zopiclone, known as a sedative hypnotic. The drug is known to have a number of side effects, including amnesia and complex sleep behaviours, which include “complex activities, normally associated with wakefulness, that occur when the subject is in a sleep-like state,” noted a psychiatric report cited in the decision.

Much of Perignon’s account was confirmed by pharmacy records, including a reverting to taking zopiclone and boosting the dosage until it started working.

Eleven days before the stabbing, Perignon was dispensed 30 tablets of an increased concentration of the drug. According to the man’s account, he followed his doctor’s instructions, taking doses that went “well beyond the recommended range of prescription for this medication,” according to testimony from one psychiatrist.

'Funny' eyes and a 'thump' in her back

On Easter Monday, April 17, 2017, the family got together for dinner. At first, nothing appeared out of the ordinary — Perignon drank a few glasses of pastis, a French liqueur, and before dinner, was joking around. The mood “was better than normal,” wrote the judge based on family accounts.

But Perignon’s wife had the impression something was off, that his eyes appeared “funny” and that he was saying things that didn’t make sense.

She went into the living room to put on a movie with one of their daughters. By 10 p.m., the mother put her daughter to bed and let the dog in.

Due to the insomnia, the couple was sleeping in separate rooms. On her way to bed, the wife heard Perignon’s footsteps on the stairs behind her, the ruling says.

“She never saw him, nor did she hear him say anything. She felt a ‘thump’ in her back and realised she had been stabbed,” wrote the judge. “She reached behind her back for the knife and pulled it out herself, cutting her thumb badly in the process.”

The woman recalls screaming, added Milman in his ruling, and had trouble breathing as two people in the house rushed to her aide.

From Perignon’s perspective, everything that day blended into one another. He told the court he remembers having dinner, going to his home office to watch a movie. He took an antidepressant, his usual mix of opioids, and took off his shoes and socks before getting into bed.

“His next memory is standing over his wife while she was lying on the floor in front of him, screaming in pain,” wrote the judge. “He remembers seeing the kitchen knife on the floor near her. He was in shock.”

Perignon remembers calling 911 and locking himself in his room because he feared he might hurt someone else.

When a police officer arrived, he can be heard on the 911 call log saying he “just did something really stupid.”

Police arrested him, took him into custody and investigated him for attempted murder.

‘No link between mind and body’

According to a previous case cited in the ruling, automatism occurs in the form of involuntary movements that can be associated with heart attacks, seizures or “external’ shock.” In other instances, automatism is reflected in “conditions such as sleepwalking or delirium, where the body moves but there is no link between mind and body.”

In his analysis of the case, Justice Milman also pointed to a lack of motive — the couple never got in any argument that night — and the cocktail of booze and drugs was an obvious trigger for the attack. The judge found he couldn't find reason to explain why Perignon, if he was acting intentionally, would have chosen that moment to attack his wife.

The judge said that immediately calling 911 and appearing anxious for help to arrive also “tends to negate the suggestion that he consciously intended to cause her harm at any stage.”

Milman found Perignon not guilty of aggravated assault because he stabbed his wife while “in a state of non-mental disorder automatism” — in other words, as he put it, “effectively asleep.”