A south Belfast man has been found not guilty of sexually assaulting two girls as they slept in bed.
Peter Simpson, 46, of Marleybone Park, claimed he didn’t know he was sexually abusing the girls, who were then aged 10 and 11, as he was “sleep walking” at the time.
He told the jury on his trial at Belfast Crown Court that he had been suffering from automatism - or ‘sleep walking’- since the age of eight.
The jury of seven men and five women took just under three hours to find Simpson not guilty by an unanimous verdict on two charges of sexual assault on two girls under the age of 13.
Prosecution lawyer Kate McKay had told the jury that the alleged offences took place at the home of his then partner on January 2, 2016.
She said that one of the girls later told police that Simpson touched her breasts over her top.
Her sister said Simpson “touched her breasts and vaginal area under her clothing”.
Mrs McKay told the jury in her summing up: “If you are sure that this man went into the bedroom and touched the girls in a sexual manner, and you are sure it happened, then you would find him guilty.
“The fact that it happened is not in dispute. We say it is sexual assault. It is touching in sexual circumstances of these two girls.
“He has raised it in his defence that he was sleep walking at the time. The question you have to answer is did he sexually assault these girls in his sleep or is this a fabricated defence?”
The prosecutor told the jury that once the girls said they were going to tell their mum what he had done to them, “he had to get back into bed quickly and you may feel he went into a self preservation mode at the stage and looked as if he was in a deep sleep”.
During an interview with police, one of the girl’s recounted a conversation she had with Simpson after what he had done to her.
He allegedly told her: “If your mum phones the police I will get arrested, I will lose my job, lose my house and lose my kids.”
She said Simpson had made the case he had “no sexual interest in children’’, but Mrs McKay said SImpson had “got himself into a position where he was almost living like a step father to the two girl. He was in a position of trust’’.
Saying he had a history of “failed relationships” she said Simpson had “used a history of sleep walking to come up with a story of fabrication”.
The prosecutor concluded: “We suggest that he knew what he was doing. This concocted fabrication is his only way out.”
But defence counsel Gavan Duffy QC said it was clear Simpson had a long history automatism which was confirmed to the court by his ex-wife, his former mother-in-law and his ex-partner.
He told the jury medical experts for both the prosecution and the defence confirmed that Simpson had a history of automatism.
The statement from the ex-partner of the two complainants was read to the jury in which she stated that she was aware that Simpson had been sleep walking during their relationship.
She told police that after her daughters told her that he had touched them in a sexual way as they slept, she said she was “screaming at him at him to wake him up. I struggled to get him conscious but he was in the deepest of sleeps”.
The girls’ mother said that when Simpson finally awoke “he had no idea what I was talking about. I was screaming at him that he had abused my daughters and I was going the phone the police”.
Mr Duffy told the jury that “suspicion and scepticism” should play no part in reaching their verdict.
“If, having heard all of the evidence you are firmly convinced that he was sleep walking at the time, you would find him not guilty.
“This man has a history of sleep walking and there is absolutely no doubt about that.”
In a response to the prosecution suggestion that Simpson had “groomed” the children, Mr Duffy told the jury: “There is no evidence whatsoever of grooming. This is a case of sleep walking...and you should return a verdict of not guilty.”
Following their not guilty verdicts, Judge Geoffrey Miller QC discharged the jury.