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Defense: Durham man unaware he had attacked children, killed son

Posted February 20, 2015

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— A Durham County man accused of killing his 4-year-old son more than four years ago doesn't remember attacking the boy or two other children, his attorney said Friday.

Joseph Anthony Mitchell went to bed on Sept. 21, 2010, and next remembers waking up in Duke University Hospital the following day, attorney Jay Ferguson told jurors as Mitchell's trial opened. He faces one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Blake Mitchell was suffocated in the early hours of Sept. 22, 2010, in the family home at 17 Thistle Trace. Two other children in the home at the time, Devon Mitchell, who was 10 at the time, and Alexis Mitchell, who was 13, told investigators that they awoke to find their father trying to cover their mouths or faces, and they had to fend him off, Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said in his opening statement.

Both surviving children testified Friday.

Alexis, who is now 18, said she remembers someone pressing her head into her mattress and possibly blacking out, only to be awakened by her brothers' cries later that night.

"I remember seeing my father on my other little brother, and I tried to get him off of him," she said in testimony that brought tears to her father's eyes. "I ran to my mom’s room to tell her what was happening. I went back to their room, and I picked up Blake and I brought him to her bed."

The family called 911, and the children's grandfather, who lived with the family, ran to alert a nurse who lived next door, Echols said.

Meanwhile, Joseph Mitchell had locked himself in his office, and authorities eventually found him with stab wounds and cuts to his torso and neck that Echols said were self-inflicted.

"The circumstances are bizarre, as his wife put it, 'mind-boggling,'" Ferguson said in his opening statement.

He described Joseph Mitchell as a loving father who never fought with his wife and who was excited about the possibility of landing a job with the Red Cross after a lengthy period of unemployment.

"Joe Mitchell had not been sleeping well. He’d go to bed, sleep for an hour then wake up and be up for the rest of the night. That shows the stress he was under," Ferguson said.

"While Joe was there and acted violently, he was not in control of his actions. It's known as a parasomnia event," he told jurors.

The defense plans to present evidence of automatism, which implies a lack of voluntary action or an unconscious action, during the trial. It's sometimes referred to as a "sleepwalking defense," where defendants argue they aren't guilty of a crime because they were sleepwalking and weren't aware they had done anything wrong.

While rare, it's not the first time sleepwalking has been used as a defense in North Carolina. In 2011, a Louisburg man who admitted to killing his sister and stabbing his mother was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter after state psychiatrists found he was sleepwalking during the incident.

Ferguson told jurors that Joseph Mitchell, now 50, simply walked away when his daughter elbowed and bit him to fend him off that night.

"That was not a man whose intent was to kill his daughter," he said, adding that he twice walked in and out of his boys' room before the fatal attack on Blake Mitchell occurred.

Echols said the family picture wasn't so rosy, noting that the house had been foreclosed and that Joseph Mitchell had, without his wife's knowledge, agreed to surrender the keys to a real estate agent on Sept. 22, 2010, for $500.

"The testimony and evidence will tell you what this was, and what this was was first-degree murder," he said.


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