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Defendant's ex-wife details financial strain, rocky marriage before son's death

Posted March 3, 2015

— A Durham County woman said Tuesday that she thought her husband was suffering a nervous breakdown more than four years ago when he attacked their children and barricaded himself in a home office.

Instead, 4-year-old Blake Mitchell died, his father ended up in custody and the family was torn apart.

Joseph Anthony Mitchell, 50, is charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder in the Sept. 22, 2010, death of Blake and attacks on his older children, Alexis, who was 13 at the time, and Devon, who was 10, their home.

Christine Perolini, who has since divorced Mitchell, recounted the family's history Tuesday during the fifth day of his trial.

The couple met in the early 1990s in a hospital emergency room in New York, where she was a nursing assistant and he was working as an emergency medical technician. They married in 1998, when Alexis was 18 months old, and decided two years later, when Devon was an infant, to move to North Carolina to give their children a safer and quieter place to grow up.

Mitchell held a series of jobs after the move, and the family's financial position was always precarious, Perolini said, noting that the banks started a foreclosure proceeding on their Durham County home, which her father helped purchase, in 2006. They were able to catch up on their mortgage at that point, but Mitchell lost his job with Wachovia during the financial industry meltdown in late 2008 and was unemployed for the next two years.

Perolini said her husband was distant when she was pregnant with Blake, often not speaking to her for weeks at a time. After the baby was born – Mitchell helped deliver him – the couple had a roller-coaster relationship, which was aggravated by the financial strains they were under, she testified.

Other witnesses have said that Mitchell remained devoted to his children, however, coaching their soccer teams and playing with them and children from the neighborhood in the backyard.

By late 2010, Perolini said, she was ready to start selling her jewelry and the family's minivan to help their situation, but he told her to hold off. He had an interview with the Red Cross that they believed could finally lead to a job, she said.

On the night of Sept. 21, 2010, Mitchell and Perolini were in bed before 9 p.m., and she recalled Alexis bursting into the bedroom in the middle of the night screaming, "Daddy's trying to hurt us."

In a voice that sometimes was only a whisper as she tried to keep her emotions in check, Perolini detailed for jurors how she tried to talk to Mitchell and then tried to revive an unconscious Blake.

Previous witnesses have testified that, after attacking the children, Mitchell went into the home office and stabbed himself three times in the chest and slit his throat, and deputies had to break through the door to get to him.

Perolini said Mitchell first blocked the door and then locked it to prevent her from getting into the office.

"I heard him fall against the door and slide down," she said. "I thought it was an anxiety attack. I yelled at him, 'Now is not the time for this. Things are looking up for us.'"

She said she asked Alexis to put Devon and Blake in the master bedroom so she knew they were safe, and she knew something wasn't right when she saw her carrying Blake.

"I was scared to touch him at first because he didn't look right," she testified. "I touched his arm, and he did not feel right."

Perolini said she began CPR, quickly moved Blake downstairs so paramedics would have an easier time getting to him and continued chest compressions on the living room floor.

After first responders arrived and took over resuscitation efforts, she said she found marks on Devon's neck while checking the two older children to make sure they were all right.

By the time she saw Blake again at Duke University Hospital, the trauma team had given up on trying to revive the boy, she said.

Mitchell's defense is built around the notion that he was under so much stress and had so little sleep for weeks that he had a "parasomnia event" and wasn't aware of his actions that night. Therefore, they contend, he shouldn't be held responsible for the attacks.

Under cross-examination, she recalled one time when Mitchell reared back and hit her in his sleep.

Prosecutors dispute the so-called "sleepwalking defense," saying Mitchell was completely aware of his actions that night and that the financial difficulties might have triggered the attacks because the family's home was in foreclosure and was about to be turned over to a bank.

A real estate agent testified Monday and Tuesday that Mitchell was ready to surrender the house on Sept. 22, 2010, in exchange for $500. She said she hadn't been able to talk to Perolini about the deal because Mitchell said she was out of town for part of that month.

Perolini said she never left town in September 2010 and didn't even know the house was in foreclosure, saying she thought "the bank was working with us."

Jurors spent much of the afternoon reviewing mortgage and foreclosure documents before Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols rested his case. Defense testimony is expected to start Wednesday morning.


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