Durham County man says he remembers nothing of night son killed
Posted March 4, 2015
Durham, N.C. — A Durham County man said Wednesday that he recalls nothing of the night his 4-year-old son was killed more than four years ago, only going to bed and then waking up in a hospital.
Joseph Anthony Mitchell was the first witness for the defense in his murder trial. He 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.
"I know I would never harm my children, so it's hard for me to comprehend that Blakey's not here," an emotional Mitchell told jurors.
When he woke up, he said, he didn't know what day it was, which hospital he was in, that he had undergone surgery or that he faced criminal charges in his son's death.
Previous witnesses have testified that, after attacking the children, Mitchell barricaded himself in a home office and stabbed himself three times in the chest and slit his throat, and Durham County deputies had to break through a door to get to him.
"Did you have plans to hurt yourself or anyone in your household?" defense attorney Jay Ferguson asked.
"No, I did not," Mitchell replied.
As his ex-wife, Christine Perolini, did as the final prosecution witness on Tuesday, Mitchell, 50, recounted the family's history, from meeting his wife at a New York hospital in the 1990s when he was an emergency medical technician through the births of their children to the decision to move to North Carolina to find a better place to raise them.
Perolini said Mitchell was distant when she was pregnant with Blake, often not speaking to her for weeks at a time. He said he was concerned about the family's precarious financial situation and wasn't sure it was the right time to have another child.
"It was just one of those things where you're not really sure, but things change because it's a baby," he testified.
Mitchell said he loved being a father to all three of his children, noting he coached athletic teams, volunteered at their school and organized neighborhood activities so the family could have fun together.
"I did everything I could to build a happy home," he said.
But the family was always scraping to get by after moving to Durham County in 2000. Mitchell held various jobs, and he lost his last one with Wachovia in late 2008 amid the financial industry meltdown.
The family's home went into foreclosure in the summer of 2010, but Mitchell said he hid that from his wife and father-in-law, who lived with the family, believing he could renegotiate with the bank, especially because he was confident of landing a job with the Red Cross.
"She had enough worries," he said of his wife. "I didn't want them to worry. I just wanted them to live their lives, and I would figure it out."
Although two representatives of BBT&T and a real estate agent testified that Mitchell had agreed to surrender the house on Sept. 22, 2010 – the day Blake died – in exchange for $500 to avoid eviction proceedings, he said that was just a ploy to gain time for him to continue to work with the bank.
"I knew it wasn't do or die that day," he said. "We had plenty of time."
Mitchell's defense is built around the notion that he was under so much stress and had slept so little in the weeks leading up to Blake's death that he had a "parasomnia event" and wasn't aware of his actions that night. Therefore, his attorney contends, he shouldn't be held responsible for the attacks.
"My sleep patterns were in total disarray," he testified. "If I slept two hours a night, I think I slept a lot."
Prosecutors dispute the so-called "sleepwalking defense," saying Mitchell was completely aware of his actions that night and that the family's financial difficulties might have triggered the attacks.
Under cross-examination, Mitchell said he has had trouble sleeping for about 20 years.
Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols also questioned Mitchell's truthfulness, suggesting that he lied to friends and others about his upbringing and his first marriage.
Dr. George Corvin, a forensic psychiatrist who examined Mitchell days after the 2010 attacks and three more times since then, also testified for the defense Wednesday. He said Mitchell doesn't fit into the type of person who knowingly kills a family member, such as someone who is trying to save a child from suffering, someone who doesn't want a child or someone who kills a child as part of a pattern of abuse.
"All of these categories are defined by the presence of intent," Corvin said. "They have to understand what they're doing, and my assessment is that he doesn't fall into any of these categories."