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'Sleepwalking' murder trial ends in acquittal

Posted March 11, 2015

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— A Durham County man who said he wasn't aware he had killed his son more than four years ago because he was sleepwalking at the time was found not guilty of the crime Wednesday.

A nine-woman, three-man jury deliberated less than four hours before acquitting Joseph Anthony Mitchell of first-degree murder in the Sept. 22, 2010, strangulation death of 4-year-old Blake and of two counts of attempted first-degree murder in attacks on his older children, Alexis, who was 13 at the time, and Devon, who was 10, in their home that same night.

Mitchell, 50, blinked back tears, looked skyward and then bowed his head when the verdicts were announced. Meanwhile, his ex-wife, Christine Perolini, the children's mother, sobbed and began hyperventilating. Court officials had to call paramedics to treat her, and she was taken out of the Durham County Courthouse on a stretcher.

Mitchell declined to comment as he walked out of the Durham County Detention Center about an hour later.

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said he was disappointed in the verdicts but respected the jury's decision.

Jurors clearly didn't want to convict Mitchell of first-degree murder, asking Superior Court Judge James Roberson after a little more than an hour of deliberations Wednesday morning if they could consider a manslaughter conviction. Roberson told them earlier the only three verdicts they could consider were guilty of first- or second-degree murder or not guilty.

After a lunch break, the jury watched a video of the inside of the Mitchell home taken hours after the attacks and returned to deliberations for about 90 minutes before reaching the not guilty verdicts.

In a text message to WRAL News, Echols said manslaughter wouldn't have been "an appropriate disposition" in the case.

"If the defendant committed the acts while conscious, he is guilty of first-degree murder, in my opinion," Echols texted. "But if he was unconscious, then the law says he is not guilty of any crime."

Witnesses testified during the three-week trial that Mitchell was a loving father. But he testified last week that he was in financial distress, having been unemployed for two years and trying to secretly rescue his home from foreclosure, and had gotten little sleep in the weeks leading up to Blake's death.

Dr. George Corvin, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the defense, said the stress and lack of sleep likely resulted in a case of "non-REM parasomnia," a sleep disorder where he could perform random acts unconsciously and could become violent if triggered by a loud noise.

Because of that, Corvin said, Mitchell was incapable of exercising any criminal intent in carrying out the attacks.

Nancy Laney, a psychologist at Central Regional Hospital in Butner who interviewed Mitchell four times over the past year, disputed that claim on Monday, saying she found no evidence that Mitchell suffered from any mental condition that would have left him unconscious at the time of the attacks. She argued that he consciously planned and carried out the crime.

Prosecutors dismissed the "sleepwalking defense," saying the the family's financial difficulties drove Mitchell to kill Blake and try to kill the other children. After the attacks, he barricaded himself in a home office, where he stabbed himself three times and slit his throat.

Parasomnia is an unusual defense, but it's not unheard of in North Carolina.

Four years ago, a Louisburg man charged with fatally stabbing his sister and wounding his mother was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter after mental health experts determined he was sleepwalking at the time.


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  • Kaitlyn Legare Mar 13, 2015
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    Brian Hill thank you for your explanations to my questions. Sad to say, this whole thing sounds like a chess match to me, with the jury being used as pawns and the victims just sitting helplessly on the sidelines. It is what it is though.

  • Brian Hill Mar 12, 2015
    user avatar

    I'd recommend reading this site :

    It is Texas centric but the laws are very similar in pretty much every state (the main difference is that we have manslaughter instead of mitigated murder) and so a lot of it applies to North Carolina.

  • Brian Hill Mar 12, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    It depends on the cause of you nodding out and whether you started to feel tired before hand. If you start driving, feel fine and then an hour later, start feeling tired to the point where it could affect your driving, you have a legal obligation to pull over somewhere and discontinue the driving of the vehicle.

    If you didn't feel tired before nodding out then it would depend how much sleep you got beforehand, how long you've been up and whether you have any medical conditions (diagnosed or otherwise).

    Not putting involuntary manslaughter on the table was the prosecutions doing; doing so would have been an admission on the their part that they think the sleepwalking defense has validity and they didn't want to send that message to the jury. That being said, involuntary manslaughter requires criminal negligence.

  • Alexia Proper Mar 12, 2015
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    He killed one person, not a number of people. Don't make this sound worse than it is.

    Your lack of empathy reflects the fact that you do not understand or do not believe that people can and do perform acts without any awareness of those actions. The fact is, though, that it absolutely happens.

    If a person performs an act in without having any knowledge of what he or she was doing at the time and not due to actions he or she took beforehand (e.g., drinking or taking drugs), then why punish the person?

    Whether the man is telling the truth or not was the matter before the jury. It would appear that his service as an EMT, good character as witnessed by others, etc. helped to support his claim. Importantly, he had no motivation to kill his son, either.

  • Kaitlyn Legare Mar 12, 2015
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    Okay, I get that distinction, but here's another real-life "what-if" that's happened to me and other people I know. I get into my car feeling fine and an hour or so into the trip I am suddenly startled and realize that I have nodded out. Now I have heard that when that happens to people they might have been asleep for several minutes, maybe even into REM. Even if I'm not knowingly tired getting into the car beforehand how I am still not responsible if I hurt someone? I guess that would be involuntary manslaughter at the least. Why wasn't that option on the table for the jury in this case?

  • Brian Hill Mar 12, 2015
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    Whether or not falling asleep while driving becomes criminal depends on the circumstances.

    If you get into a car while fatigued or lacking sleep, knowing that you are tired, and then fall asleep, you are negligent because you made a conscious choice to drive when you were in a condition that made it unsafe to do so.

    If you go to sleep in a bed, and then get out of bed and get in the car and drive as part of sleepwalking, that is automatism and you are not liable for that on the basis that there was no criminal negligence involved as a conscious choice to drive was not made.

  • Peter Panda Mar 12, 2015
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    So you're OK with someone killing people and not being held responsible?

  • Jessica McDougald Mar 12, 2015
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    Sometimes I wonder if ya'll actually read the stories before posting a comment.

  • Al Carson Mar 12, 2015
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    I'll bet he was eating Twinkies while he was sleepwalking.

  • Kaitlyn Legare Mar 12, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    Except for the mobility part, I don't understand how "normal" sleep is physiologically any different from sleep-walking. In both cases it's the subcortical brain that's running things, right? So why is falling asleep at the wheel any different from sleep-walking, in a legal sense?