Matthew James Phelps, a 28-year-old aspiring pastor, called police and confusedly confessed to murdering his wife, later saying he was under the influence of cough syrup.
In court, Phelps's lawyer urged the jury not to rush to any conclusions about the killing. Now, testimony from a medical expert may support Phelps's claim.
“I had a dream and then I turned on the lights and she’s dead on the floor,” Phelps had told police shortly after waking. “There’s blood all over me, and there’s a bloody knife on the bed. I think I did it.”
Phelps had not officially entered a plea as of Tuesday, but his lawyer had already begun cautioning the public about the details of the case: “It’s a very tragic situation — sad and tragic. And at the same time, we have to ask everybody to withhold judgement in this particular case until we know more and we’re able to develop more,” Joseph Cheshire said. “There’s a lot to this story I believe that will be told in the future.”
People now reports that a forensic toxicologist, Dr. Richard Stripp, said that the cold medicine taken by Phelps can, in fact, cause hallucinations when taken in large doses. The effects of the medicine were described as similar to PCP.
“Dextromethorphan is a dissociative anesthetic that is designed to be an anesthetic, and can cause out-of-body experiences and one can lose their ability to sense pain,” Stripp explains. “Chlorpheniramine is a cough suppressant and that particular drug is abused, and the reason it is abused is if you take high levels of it, the drug’s properties are similar to PCP.”
PCP (Phencyclidine) and “drugs like that are dissociative anesthetics. It is conceivable that someone who had taken a large dose could have experienced hallucinations and exhibited behavior that we would consider outside of their normal characteristics," he added.
“I took more medicine than I should have,” he said. “I took Coricidin Cough and Cold because I know it can make you feel good. A lot of times I can’t sleep at night. So, I took some," Phelps had previously confessed.
Stripp admitted that he does not know if the defense will hold up in court.
“I’ve seen cases where these drugs have been abused, over the counter, and there have been issues, but I’ve never seen a case like this where someone commits murder under the influence of the drug,” Stripp says. “I have seen cases where people on PCP commit murder. Violent behavior is also a potential outcome of someone being under the influence of PCP. It impairs one’s ability to behave rationally.”
“The idea that certain meds can get into your system and cause you to do things that you’re not aware of is completely possible," Chris Beechler, a North Carolina defense attorney who thought that there was a chance Phelps could be found not guilty if he argued automatism (meaning that he was not in control of his body), told People. “It is generally not a legal excuse for a crime but if you’re in a mental state where you cannot premeditate, deliberate and form specific intent to kill, then you cannot be convicted of first-degree murder... The other option is known as voluntary intoxication, when a person ingests — whether it’s alcohol or drugs — anything."
Bayer, the company who produces the cough syrup in question, released the following statement to People: “Bayer extends our deepest sympathies to this family. Patient safety is our top priority, and we continually monitor adverse events regarding all of our products. There is no evidence to suggest that Coricidin is associated with violent behavior.”
Phelps had been married to his wife for less than a year.