Christian-jazz musician Lenny Fitzgerald Sorenson hands tissues to weepy women in a 12-step-program meeting he hosts each Sunday with Cari, his fiancée.
As Cari quickly alternates between laughing and crying while talking about her sobriety, Sorenson reaches over and gently embraces her forearm. That’s a difficult image to square with a police report that states on Sept. 4, 2009, Sorenson scared a female TRAX passenger with creepy glances, followed her when she moved, and finally grabbed her wrist and wouldn’t let go until other riders intervened, leaving the woman with a bruise. Sorenson’s wrists, meanwhile, ended up in police handcuffs.
Sorenson, 35, of Salt Lake City, doesn’t deny grabbing the woman. He can’t. He doesn’t remember it.
Following a 1992 car crash, Sorenson developed post-traumatic epilepsy, which manifests itself in a few seizures each year. Sorenson’s seizures often don’t involve stereotypical symptoms like convulsions or loss of balance. He usually feels a warning, a queer feeling of disorientation, before entering a sleepwalking-like state.
“It’s like deja vu. It’s surreal. It’s like a dream that comes over you. It’s heavy,” Sorenson says. “You don’t have time to have emotions” before the seizure takes over completely and his consciousness is gone — usually for a minute to two, but sometimes only seconds.
Sometimes he speaks. Sometimes he walks. Sometimes he acts in ways that appear aggressive, like the Sept. 4 episode on TRAX, which garnered Sorenson misdemeanor charges for unlawful detention, simple assault and disorderly conduct.
Epileptic seizures come in many forms, Utah Epilepsy Association executive director Richard Montano says.
Sleepwalking-like symptoms are a part of some of them, including “complex partial” seizures, which Epilepsy.org says can cause individuals to walk into traffic or appear aggressive, though the movements are mere “automatisms,” or purposeless actions.
Montano says the stereotype that all seizures involve convulsions resulted from years of removing people with epilepsy from society. “In the early days, people were institutionalized. A perfectly normal person [would experience] uncontrollable seizures once per month, so they were institutionalized. … In our society, it’s just a lack of knowledge, and it’s taken a long time to get where we are today.”
As a part of its advocacy mission, Montano’s organization trains local law enforcement agencies and elementary school classes on seizure awareness and sensitivity. Utah has an estimated 28,000 people with epilepsy.
Will his criminal history hurt him?
Sorenson is now on an education campaign of his own, one he hopes will keep him out of jail. But it’s slow going, and his own history complicates the effort. The Salt Lake City-born musician and part-time banquet server has been twice convicted of assaults that he says were due to seizures. He was convicted in 2003 and 2005 and did not raise epilepsy as a defense in either case.
“I wasn’t ready to step up to the work it would take” to prove his illness, he says, holding up a folder of maybe 50 pages containing letters from his family members about seizures they’ve witnessed and a letter from a doctor describing his medication.
Sorenson was also struggling with alcoholism when he was charged for his two previous incidents — during the latter, he says, he smashed a glass bottle while at home with his former girlfriend. His last drink was on his birthday in 2006, the night before he served a 40-day jail sentence for the bottle-smashing incident, which earned him a conviction of misdemeanor attempted aggravated assault. He copped to the charges and didn’t bring up his epilepsy then, he says, because he was only beginning to take responsibility for alcohol addiction. Alcohol reduces the effectiveness of his anti-seizure medication.
But, he’s sober now and unwilling to just “take the fall” for his unconscious misconduct, like he did back then. “It takes a long time to realize the seriousness of [epilepsy],” he says, and the threat of jail time is ample motivation.
Sorenson had to convince even his own public defense attorney that they could prove epilepsy caused him to grab a woman’s wrist. Prior to meeting Sorenson, “I, like 99 percent of the rest of the population, had zero understanding about seizures,” public defender Sam Goble says. “I have no reason to believe that my initial reaction would be any different than that of a juror.”
So the challenge, Goble says, is proving to a jury that a type of seizure they’ve probably never heard of even exists, and that it played a pivotal role in Sorenson’s conduct.
Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill, whose office filed the charges against Sorenson, says he can’t talk about Sorenson’s case while it’s pending. He did discuss medical defenses generally, however.
“In situations where medical conditions may negate the elements of a crime, or even if they can’t, [prosecutors] have to look to make sure the interest of justice is going to be served by the continued prosecution of a case,” Gill says. “I think we have an ongoing duty, as we are made aware of those, to re-examine in every such case where medical conditions may be an explanation for the basis of the conduct. We do that with people with mental illnesses all the time.”
Sorenson has another problem. “I don’t have regular [health] care, you know, or money or insurance,” he says. “I racked up bills at LDS Hospital, the University of Utah. It’s gotten to the point now where the neurologist at the U, he [prescribes] my medication, but I don’t get to see him.”
Sorenson says he should be seeing a neurologist once per month but hasn’t seen one in years because he doesn’t have access. He was denied Social Security disability payments in 2005 but is again seeking them. He lives in subsidized housing because of his epilepsy, he says, and receives Primary Care Network health insurance from the Utah Department of Health, which pays for his medications, but doesn’t cover specialists.
Before people conclude Sorenson has rare or peculiar seizures, Montano says, it should be noted that many individuals hide their disease. Some hide for fear of losing privileges —Sorenson is ineligible for a driver license, for example. The rate of depression among individuals with epilepsy is twice the rate of the general population, Montano says. “People have a fear of reporting it. ‘I don’t want to let anyone know I have epilepsy because they’ll take my car away, I’ll lose my job, I don’t want to be looked at differently.’ So they don’t tell anyone about it.”
But the fact remains that seizures that cause aggressive behavior can threaten innocent bystanders, which is why charges were brought forward.
Sorenson’s trial is scheduled for March 5. He hopes, however, to have the charges dismissed prior to that.