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Neighbor frantically tried to save strangled Durham boy

Posted February 23, 2015

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— Witnesses in a Durham County murder trial on Monday described the chaotic scene at the home where a 4-year-old boy was killed more than four years ago.

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 his son Blake and attacks on his older children, Alexis, who was 13 at the time, and Devon, who was 10.

Neighbor Cynthia Ross said she and her husband had been awakened by Blake's grandfather shortly after midnight that night, and she ran across the cul-de-sac upon learning that the boy wasn't breathing. A nurse at Duke University Hospital, she began chest compressions to help first responders on the scene revive the boy.

"My assumption was he fell or he fell out of bed or he choked on something," Ross testified. "I never thought anything bad had happened. I just thought, 'He's going to start breathing.'"

As she frantically tried to revive the boy, paramedics and Durham County deputies ran into and out of the Mitchell house. Some deputies crashed through a door upstairs and called for help, she said, but she remained focused on Blake.

"I remember doing chest compressions and (his mother) Christine standing there with her kids saying, 'Save my baby. Save my baby,'" Ross said, choking back tears. "I just knew, 'I'm going to save your baby.' I wasn't emotional. I just felt like, 'I'm going to do this.'"

Deputy Chris Vermillion testified that he and another deputy had to break through a door where they found an unconscious Mitchell leaning against the other side of the door. Vermillion said Mitchell was sitting it a pool of blood with his legs splayed out, and he had three stab wounds to the chest and a cut on the left side of his neck.

Vermillion said he was able to squeeze through an opening in the door and quickly kicked a knife out of Mitchell's hand into the middle of the room.

Later, he said, he spoke with Blake's brother and sister, and both told him that they were awakened as Mitchell trying to smother them but that he stopped after they elbowed him. Both Alexis and Devon said they thought the attacks were only a nightmare, Vermillion said.

Tom Malone, a former investigator for the Durham County Sheriff's Office, testified that he went to Duke Hospital to check on both Blake and Mitchell and saw bruises on the boy's neck that matched the pattern of a gold bracelet Mitchell was wearing.

Mark Bradford, an evidence technician for the sheriff's office, said a Halloween mask was found on Alexis' bed, and blood-stained gloves and a bloody jacket were in the room where Mitchell was found. Defense attorneys said Mitchell was wearing all three when he attacked the children.

Ross said Christine Mitchell later asked her to speak to the media gathered in the neighborhood, and she told them the attack was completely out of character for Joseph Mitchell, who always doted on his children.

Defense attorneys maintain such inconsistencies support their theory of automatism, which implies a lack of voluntary action or an unconscious action. They contend Joseph Mitchell was under tremendous financial stress and hadn't been sleeping well, which contributed to the "parasomnia event."

Prosecutors dispute the so-called "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, saying Mitchell was completely aware of his actions during the attack.

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  • Wayne R. Douglas Feb 24, 2015
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    What a BS excuse. This man wasn't happy with his life, so he tried to get rid of that life. Thankfully, now he will never be able to get rid of that life. It is sad that he succeeded in killing one of his children. I hope he enjoys every minute of prison.