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Juror: 'Hands were tied' in 'sleepwalking murder' trial

Posted March 12, 2015

— One member of the jury that acquitted 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 said Thursday that she regrets the verdict but says jurors were left no choice.

The nine-woman, three-man jury deliberated less than four hours Wednesday before finding Joseph Anthony Mitchell not guilty 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, testified last week that he was under tremendous stress because he had been unemployed for two years and the family's house was in foreclosure and that he had gotten little sleep in the weeks before Blake's death. A defense expert said the combination of stress and lack of sleep led to a case of "non-REM parasomnia," a sleep disorder where Mitchell could perform random acts unconsciously and could become violent if triggered by a loud noise.

The juror, who didn't want to be identified, said she was "embarrassed to be part of this" and wants to put the case behind her.

"I feel like I got dragged into someone else’s nightmare," she said. "You’re just there trying to do the best you can and follow the law and do your duty, and it’s not easy."

Mitchell never claimed that he didn't kill Blake, only that he didn't consciously do it. The juror said the law didn't leave them an option but acquittal because they found no intent or malice in Mitchell's actions.

About 90 minutes into their deliberations Wednesday, jurors asked if they could consider a manslaughter conviction, but Superior Court Judge James Roberson limited them to verdicts of guilty of first- or second-degree murder or not guilty.

"We would have definitely convicted him of manslaughter," the juror said. "We felt like our hands were tied.

"We came very close to a hung jury," she continued. "There were a lot of tears. A lot of people were very upset because we didn’t want to do what we felt we had to do, which was say he was innocent. It was mortifying to be part of it, but we all sworn to do our duty."

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said the facts of the case ruled out a manslaughter conviction.

"It’s a case that, if you believe Mr. Mitchell committed these acts consciously, there’s some level of malice and/or premeditation that comes with that," Echols said. "If you don’t believe he committed these acts consciously, then certainly it’s not what some people think of as a heat-of-passion killing, so therefore voluntarily manslaughter should not apply."

During the trial, defense attorney Jay Ferguson asked Roberson to allow jurors to consider an involuntary manslaughter conviction, saying there was evidence that Mitchell's negligence in not treating his stress and sleep problems led to the parasomnia. Roberson denied that request.

"If Mr. Mitchell committed these acts in a conscious state, it wasn’t involuntary, and if he committed them in an unconscious state, then the law says he or anyone else is not guilty of any crime they commit in an unconscious state," Echols said.

Still, the prosecutor said he was disappointed in the verdict.

"I don’t know exactly what the jury thought. They could have believed, for all I know, that he was sleepwalking or could have had reasonable doubt as to whether or not he was conscious at the time," he said.

The juror said that, although she and her fellow jurors didn't believe Mitchell, the defense simply did a better job of presenting its case.

"I don’t know if he was sleepwalking or not," the juror said of Mitchell. "I think he is a pathological liar. ... Everything he said was mostly discounted by us."

Ferguson said his biggest challenge in the case was getting jurors to even consider that Mitchell's version of events was true.

"I knew from the day I met Joe he was a different person," he said. "He was not one who would want to kill his kids. We would just have to find out why."

Mitchell declined to comment as he left the Durham County jail Wednesday night a free man for the first time in four and a half years. Ferguson said he is now trying to rebuild his life.

"For Joe, it's bittersweet. Obviously, he enjoys his freedom, but the irony of all this is what he really wants out of life is to be reunited with his family, and that's just not going to happen right now," Ferguson said.

Mitchell's wife, Christine Perolini, divorced him after Blake's death, and she was so distraught over his acquittal that she had to be taken out of the Durham County Courthouse on a stretcher.

Echols said he has tried to give Perolini some space.

"The family is obviously having a difficult time," he said. "Whichever verdict or whichever combination of verdicts was going to be difficult. This was probably, as people have seen, the most difficult scenario."

The juror said she feels that she let down Perolini and her family, but the jury had no choice.

"I knew she was going to feel we had failed her. We kind of felt that way too, but we felt the prosecution failed her," she said. "They had a job to do, and it is a tough job. The burden is heavier on their side. We can’t manufacture something that isn’t there."


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  • Edward Levy Mar 13, 2015
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    I tend to agree with you John. This can open it up to many more murderers
    claiming this type MURDER SO, HOW DOES THIS MURDER GO ON BOOK?
    Accident, unsolved murder.
    I say by his own lips he murdered one innocent 4 year old and attempted murder of 2 other children. And the Judge tied their hand quote from juror I think he is a pathological LIAR"
    " we do not know if is sleepwlking or NOT

  • Jack Miller Mar 13, 2015
    user avatar

    You people should not be playing keyboard jurors and posting comments on this case if you have not taken the time to a) Watch the courtroom proceedings either Live since they were streamed online or via archive and b) took time to research and comprehend the laws and charges

    It's the same lazy bandwagon mentality that has people wriled up in Fergusson. Pause. Do your homework and sure, then chime in. But not doing so is invalidsting our judicial system.

  • Brian Hill Mar 13, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    Because murder requires malice aforethought. It is not enough that he simply killed his son (actus reus) but he must also have a culpable state of mind (mens rea) that would fall under the category of malice.

    That means one of the following must be met :
    1.Intent to kill
    2.Intent to inflict serious bodily injury
    3.Depraved heart (extreme negligence manifested by a willful and depraved indifference to human life, e.g. throwing boulders at cars off of an overpass for fun resulting in someone's death).
    4.A death arising from the commission of, or immediate flight from, a violent felony other than one related directly to the assault (e.g. arson, rape, robbery).

  • Angie Cox Mar 13, 2015
    user avatar

    I am confused. if they didn't think he was sleepwalking why not get him for murder? I think they are having remorse after the fact. they knew that option! this poor innocent boy and they let the father out free!

  • Walter Smirth Mar 13, 2015
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    Looks like the prosecution made a bad mistake by not offering the jurors more choice.

  • Clovis Sangrail Mar 13, 2015
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    "then one could make the argument that they ignored the spirit of the law in order to fixate on the letter of the law." They didnt ignore anything. They took an oath and they took it seriously. If we dont like the way the laws are written then the General Assembly can modify them. But to expect a juror to violate their word to make up for the deficiency of the rest of the system is repugnant.

    Keeping your words when it isnt easy, convenient, or pleasurable is something that society should honor.

    "At the end of the day, a man killed his child and will now never face any legal consequences for it."That is the fault of the DA and the prosecution who didnt bring sufficient evidence and who didnt bring charges they could win on. Dont look to a juror to fix those issues.

  • Peter Panda Mar 13, 2015
    user avatar

    criminals have way too many rights in this state

  • Amy Andrews Mar 13, 2015
    user avatar

    He may not face any legal consequences, but he has to live with what he's done for the rest of his life. He will also face a higher Judge in eternity one day!!

  • Todd Jenkins Mar 13, 2015
    user avatar

    Thank you to the jurors for their service but you should have delivered a conviction for the sake of the dead child.

  • Kaitlyn Legare Mar 13, 2015
    user avatar

    My older brother is a first-year law student in Florida. He told me that in his very first class the professor said there is a difference between legal justice and absolute truth, and that if they chose to become lawyers in order to seek the truth they were in the wrong profession. I think that might be the only time any lawyer has ever spoken the absolute truth.