Sleep expert believes father likely killed infant son during parasomnia episode

A psychiatrist who was qualified as a sleep disorder expert testified it's "most likely" Damien Starrett was experiencing parasomnia when he punched his daughter and fatally injured his infant son.

Damien Starrett on trial for second-degree murder in death of one-year-old Ares

Ares Starrett, 1, was killed by his father Damien Starrett in Fort Saskatchewan in November 2019. (Justice for Ares/Facebook)

A psychiatrist who specializes in sleep disorders told an Edmonton second-degree murder trial Friday that the accused killer was "most likely" experiencing parasomnia when he killed his son. 

Dr. Colin Shapiro said parasomnia can include things like sleep terrors, walking, talking and even driving while a person is asleep. 

"The brain is still sleeping but you're functioning at some level," Shapiro said. 

Damien Starrett admits that he punched his five-year-old daughter and fatally injured his one-year old son Ares on Nov. 23, 2019, but he insists he was in a sleeping, automaton-like state at the time. 

His daughter's name is protected by a court-ordered publication ban. Earlier in the trial, she testified her father fell asleep on the couch and after he attacked her brother and then her, she woke him up by tickling his armpit. 

"He said sorry. Then he sat on the couch," she testified.

Psychiatrist Dr. Colin Shapiro testified for the defence Friday in Starrett's second-degree murder trial. (iSleepClinic.com)

Defence lawyer Rory Ziv asked the Toronto-based psychiatrist, who was qualified as an expert witness, what he would conclude from Starrett going back to sleep after he fatally struck his son and injured his daughter. 

"I think that speaks pretty strongly to it being parasomnia," Shapiro told the court.

Shapiro said around seven per cent of the adult population experiences parasomnia, with the numbers for children much higher at 20 to 30 per cent.

Shapiro also testified people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) are more likely to suffer from parasomnia. 

The trial has been told that Starrett has been diagnosed with FASD. He testified he has suffered from sleep problems for most of his life. 

Shapiro agreed with Ziv that a number of factors Starrett was experiencing could have had a compounding effect that led to parasomnia on the day Ares died.

Starrett, 33, is charged with second-degree murder in the death of his son Ares. (Damien Starrett/Facebook)

Starrett was stressed about his finances and relationship with his partner. He was going through heroin withdrawal, had ingested a large number of Percocets and had debilitating back pain.

"If I told you he was sleep deprived for days, would that be relevant?" Ziv asked the doctor.

"Absolutely," Shapiro answered. "People who are sleep deprived are more likely to go into deep sleep."

Shapiro explained that deep sleep, which happens early in the sleep cycle, is when parasomnia usually occurs.

Two more doctors are expected to be called by the defence next week. Ziv said those will be his final witnesses. 

The trial is expected to adjourn to allow the lawyers time to prepare written closing submissions.

Starrett is not in custody.


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.