Dead Asleep. Sleepwalking or Murder? The Trial of Randy Herman
Dead Asleep is a documentary on Hulu about the murder of Brook Preston by Randy Herman. His defense aruged he had commited the actions but was sleepwalking and unaware of his actions. As a board certified sleep medicine expert, I was interested. But after watching, I was left with more questions than answers. I felt uncomfortable about the verdict because I am concerned about whether the standards for expert testimony may undermine the possibilty of a fair trial.
Brooke Preston was murdered by Randy Herman, her long-time friend and former roommate. They grew up together in the northeast United States and moved down to Florida together. When Brooke’s mother was told that Randy was the prime suspect, she voiced disblief saying “he’s a really nice boy… never raised his voice.”
What there motive?
On a March morning in 2017, Randy Herman Jr. called 911, and subsequently, he confessed to the murder of Brooke Preston, one of his best friends. Other than recalling a memory of watching her leave his room, after picking up a t-shirt he gave her, he denied any memory of the event. That is other than finding himself with a knife in his hands, covered in blood and standing over her dead corpse.
While Mr. Herman’s defense alleged that sleepwalking explained the chain of events, the prosecution said he was “wide awake” at the time of the crime. They claimed the murder was fueled by some sort of sexual deviance. After watching the documentary, I was convinced of neither, and left disturbed that this boy’s life seemed to come down to expert testimony.
Based from what was presented in the documentary, it wasn’t clear to me that a burden of proof was met. That I guess depends on how you define “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I did some additional digging to find some more details, especially regarding the alleged timeline, which the jury appeared to rely on heavily during their deliberations.Randy Herman had no known history of violence, though he admitted to a drinking increasing amounts of alcohol in the days leading up to Brooke’s death.
About Randy & Brooke Prior to the Crime
A few years earlier they had moved to live as roomates in Florida together, and along with Brooke’s older, the three of them rented a home near West Palm Beach. Brooke met a guy and was in the process of moving out to live in New York, to live with her boyrfirend near Buffalo. She had already moved most of her things out and had been living in Buffalo for some time, but returned to Florida to get her remaining belongings. As they were very close friends, recently roommates, when she came back down to palm beach he spent a lot oftime hanging out with Brooke.
The night before her death there was an incident
On the night before her death, Randy was drunk and she felt was exhibiting strange and ‘belligerent’ behavior. Prosecuters introduced that “he was sitting there buck-nacked” when Brooke went to her bedroom and opened her closet. I’m not sure the one event, establishes the motive, but the relevance of this event was not lost on the prosecution who argued it was proof that Randy was a sexual deviant. I guess that depends on your definition of the term.
The timeline, reconstructed from closing arguments of both the Prosecution and Defense:
- It’s unclear what time Randy went to bed but Randy was said to stay up during the night and sleep during the day.
- The next morning, Randy texted Brooke around 7:45–8:00 AM asking Brooke to stop by to pick up a t-shirt he wanted to give her. He said she might have to wake him up as he was heading back to bed.
- Around 835–837 AM Brooke Preston arrived at the residence.
- A witness testifies hearing screams coming from the house around 849 AM.
- Around 9:00 AM, Randy walks outside and calls 9–1–1 around 905 AM. He says, “someone’ been murdered.”
Most of the evidence used against Randy is from his own recorded confession. In recordings, Randy’s seems genuinely confused about the details of what happened. He sounds like someone who is confessing to a crime, not like someone trying to hatch a plot to defend himself. He continues with the gresome story. The last thing he remembers is Brooke “leaving his room and then he wakes up.” The murder weapon in his hands and he is covered in blood. It seems odd that someone attempting to get out of a crime, would offer an honest confession about murder, then lie about something like waking confused and having no recollection of the events. Is this how someone who commits murder and tries to lie about it behaves or is there a more plausible explanation?
Defense Expert: He’s Asleep
Why couldn’t Randy remember details? How could he perform complex actions but have amnesia? Randy’s defense presented the theory that Randy was asleep. Sleepwalking has been used as a criminal defense in several instances. It’s when your body lacks the normal disconnect between the sleep and awake state. Instead the transition is blurred. The parasomnia can explain complex activities taking place during sleep. Supportive of the parasomnia, in this particular case, there was a history of sleepwalking as a child, that was undiagnosed, but that was witnessed by his mother and sister on several occasions. On one occassion, his mother recalls that he rode a bicycle while sleeping. The theory was supported by testimony of the defense expert, Dr. Charles Patrick Ewing, a forensic psychologist, who testified for the defense that the act of murder accompanied by amnesia could be explained by sleep walking.
Prosecutions Expert: He’s a Sexual Pscyhopath
The prosecution brought their own expert. Dr. Wade Myers, Director of Forensic Psychiatry at Brown, a highly credentialed psychiatrist and author of Juvenile Sexual Homicide. He testified for the prosecution that Mr. Herman was “wide awake minutes before the crime. And you can’t go from wide awake to sleepwalking in a matter of minutes.” As a board certified sleep medicine doctor, I’m not sure I understand his conclusion or agree with his statement. I have personally seen individuals go directly into REM or deep sleep immediately after falling asleep. Google “REM rebound” and you can read all about the topic.
As his statement seemed questionable, I thought I would see if this was a statement from a qualified sleep expert. It turns out, while very experienced — Dr. Myers is in fact, triple board certified in general psyciatry, adolescent psychiatry and forensic psychiatry, but he is not trained in Sleep Medicine. Shouldn’t he be qualified in that specific area if the main question is whether or not it is possible “to go from wide awake to sleepwalking in a matter of minutes”? For that matter, both the defense and prosecution experts, weren’t sleep medicine experts. Instead, the prosecution expert had written a book on Juvenile Sexual Homicide. Perhaps he can confirm the defense theory that Randy is a sexual deviant or maybe his worldview is biased. I am reminded of the story of a secretary who was asked why she resigned from her position working for a psychiatrist shortly after starting. “He analyzed everything I did. I couldn’t win. If I came late, I was hostile; if I was early, I was anxious; if I arrived on time, I was compulsive.” The thing is sometimes we see things through our own lens.
When I heard his explaination of stages of sleep to the jury, it sounded to me like a well researched topic by a non-expert. He said “it’s about an hour or two after you go to bed is when you first go into deep sleep.” Firstly, even in classic examples of sleep stages, as in this older histogram deep sleep or delta wave sleep happens within an hour of sleep onset in normal young individuals. As you can see in the sleep histogram below, sleep onset is at approximately 20 minutes, within another 20 minutes or 20 minutes after falling asleep deep sleep is reached.
I didnt cherry pick the above drawing. Google “normal sleep architecture” images and you will see hundreds of pictures. Is it “an hour OR two”? I suppose, it would be most accurate if he said something else like within 1 hour, 20 to 40 minutes, but that would not have worked with the prosecutions narrative. I guess it would also be technically accurate to say within 1, 2 OR 3 hours. It just might confuse jurors to say it that way.
As I said above, individuals may go directly in to deep stages of sleep or REM sleep. This may be especially true when one is sleep deprived and there is a distinction, that was not made by Dr. Myers, which is when people are falling back to sleep, it is different than when one is going to sleep for the first time.
The reason the sleep stages are important is because NREM parasomnias like sleep-walking are more likely to take place in the first half of the night when there is more Stage 3 or delta wave sleep in a typical heathy person. Therefore, if you try and make the case that it will take several hours to get to stage 3 sleep after going to bed, which is erroneous, one might conclude sleep walking ought not happen minutes after falling asleep. It would be erroneous to conclude this as well, if one were falling back asleep as this is different than when one goes to sleep for the first time.
Anyway, while Dr. Myers explanation was innaccurate (or at the very least misleading) it seems was heavily relied upon by the jury. One juror said, “It was for them to give us the facts and let us decide whether or not we believed that it could be sleepwalking.” Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. I probably would have felt the same way, if I didn’t have any training in this area. The problem I have here, is that I don’t believe either “expert” had sufficient expertise to educate the jury, regarding sleep medicine.
At least, it seems that the defense attorneys seized upon the lack of sleep qualifications, though to an insufficient extent. In their closing arguments, the defense argued that Dr. Meyers was not a sleep expert or someone who understand sleep disorders. However, I think they fell short of depicting him as a person who was giving unqualified and inaccurate statements.
The standard for guilt, is beyond a reasonable doubt. Based on the facts as presented in the documentary and my own understanding of sleep medicine, it seems to me that sleep walking could explain the sequence of events. In my mind, there is reasonable doubt. The Jury didn’t agree, and without any formal training in sleep medicine, they had to rely on information provided to them.
Factors demonstrative of innocence
- Randy Herman did not have a history of aggression or violence
- When detectives notified Brookes parents, their response was one of shock that Randy was involved. Her mother said: “I've known Randy since he was a kid, he was mellow, he would never raise his voice, everybody always liked him…nice guy. It doesn't make sense. Never in a million years.”
- He had a history of sleepwalking as a child, including carrying out complex activities while sleepwalking.
- He had a history of getting along well with the victim, Brooke. In fact, they were described as best friends that grew up together.
- He did not exhibit a pattern of obstructing justice — he confessed — and appeared to be honest. Therefore, why would he be selectively lying about not remembering the details — amnesia?
- The description of the events are consistent with how you would expect someone, with a parasomnia, to experience such an event.
- Of note, the prosecutor never called the chief detective as a witness at trial.
- His bizarre behavior the night before, where he was naked in a closet, could be explained by drunken behavior. In theory, it could also be described by sleepwalking. Thinking about the nudity, I am reminded of a college boy, who had sleep walking and who woke up once or twice and urinated into his roommates closet
Others think he’s guilty
Dr. Grande explains the evidence well on his YouTube channel. He makes a logical argument for why he feels that Randy was guilty and goes through the facts of the case. However, though he articulates that the narrative meets the criteria for parasomnia, he maintains, as did the prosecution, that this was Randy’s narrative. Therefore, he doesn't believe it.
I disagree. The entire chain of events is Randy’s narrative. It is the narrative used to convict him. The prosecutors use parts of his narrative to establish that Randy was wide awake. It seems to me, the case being made is that you should believe him when he says that he was awake, but don’t believe him when he says he doesn’t remember.
In his video Dr. Grande also mentioned Randy was using drugs, alcohol, stayed up most of the night and sleept most of the day. I find this further supportive the case for a parasomnia.
Shouldn’t Deep Sleep Happen Earlier in the Night?
I believe I heard one of the prosecutors mention that deep sleep was more likely to take place in the first third of the night, as an argument against Randy having the parasomnia around 830 AM. That argument would be weakened if as mentioned, Randy typically went to sleep in the morning, as for him that would represent the first third of the night.
The evil genius argument can be made in support of Mr. Herman. Is he an evil genius? If he is, would he confess to the murder? If he is not an evil genius, then would he be capable of coming up with a story that goes along so well with that of sleepwalking? No.
I don’t think Mr. Herman is an evil genious. I don’t know if he is innocent of intentional murder either. Perhaps he is guilty and got all he deserved. I do think that the jurors put significant weight into the testimony of Dr. Wade Myers and that his testimony, at the very least, neutralized any benefits conferred by the defense expert. If everything he said on the stand were accurate, I wouldn’t consider it as concerning that he lacks sleep medicine expertise. Unfortunately, that isnt the case here. The average person, even doctors without specialized sleep medicine training, I suspect, would find Dr. Myers to be a credible witness. However, I believe his lack of expertise in sleep medicine, contributed to answers which may have misled jurors and affected the outcome of this trial.
A trained sleep expert might have provided a general explanation of sleep stages in normal cases, but went on to explain how sleep would be affected in this atypical sleep. They might have explained how alcohol use, cocaine withdrawal effects and a delayed circadian rhythm could have substantially ramped-up the stages of sleep that make sleepwalking to be more likely to happen. I could be wrong, but I reasonably doubt it.