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Prosecution witness pokes holes in murder defendant's sleepwalking claim

Posted March 9, 2015

— The final witness in a Durham County man's murder trial spent Monday afternoon rebutting the defense argument that the man was sleepwalking and was unaware of his actions more than four years ago when he killed his son.

Joseph Anthony Mitchell is charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder in the Sept. 22, 2010, strangulation death of 4-year-old Blake and attacks on his older children, Alexis, who was 13 at the time, and Devon, who was 10, in their home.

After attacking the children, Mitchell barricaded himself in a home office and stabbed himself three times in the chest and slit his throat, witnesses have said. Durham County deputies had to break through a door to get to him.

Nancy Laney, a psychologist at Central Regional Hospital in Butner who interviewed Mitchell four times over the past year, said she found him to be a narcissist who had a sense of entitlement about life and lacked empathy.

"He never mentioned to me how difficult Blake's death must have impacted his children or (his wife)," Laney testified. "That was telling."

Dr. George Corvin, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the defense, said last week that Mitchell was likely suffering from "non-REM parasomnia," a sleep disorder where he could perform random acts unconsciously and could become violent if triggered by a loud noise.

Mitchell testified 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.

Corvin said stress and a lack of sleep likely led to the parasomnia, and he said Mitchell was incapable of exercising any criminal intent in carrying out the attacks.

Laney disputed those findings, saying she found no evidence that Mitchell walks in his sleep. She noted that Christine Perolini, Mitchell's former wife, told her Mitchell never had trouble sleeping but expressed frustration over being unemployed and the family's financial situation.

"There is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Mitchell was suffering from any kind of mental disease or defect or condition that rendered him unconscious at the time of the alleged offenses," Laney testified. "In a conscious state, he had the cognitive abilities to plan, attend, initiate and carry out his actions."

Defense attorney Jay Ferguson questioned why Laney gave Perolini's information more weight than Mitchell's in reaching her conclusions. She responded that Mitchell provided inconsistent answers in her interviews.

Ferguson noted, however, that Perolini told Durham County Sheriff's Office investigators in the days after Blake's death that both she and Mitchell hadn't slept well for weeks because of their financial straits.

Much of Monday morning was spent discussing whether the results of a polygraph test Mitchell took would be admitted as evidence.

Laney reviewed the polygraph results but dismissed them, Ferguson said. He noted that she based her opinion strictly on statements he made to her – she never performed any physical or mental tests – yet didn't give any weight to the polygraph, which showed Mitchell was telling the truth when asked if he didn't remember the attacks.

Superior Court Judge James Roberson declined to allow any questions about the polygraph and said references to it would be redacted from Laney's report before jurors would be allowed to see it.

Testimony in the case is expected to conclude Tuesday morning, with closing arguments scheduled for the afternoon.


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  • Fred Garner Mar 10, 2015
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    He's guilty of murder in the first degree. Case closed.

  • Alexia Proper Mar 10, 2015
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    Because a person doesn't talk about how a horrible event might affect others means they have a sense of entitle!ent and are narcissistic? No, it doesn't. It might just mean he's repressing feelings or perhaps so consumed with sadness that they can't feel sad for others. But, that's depression, not narcissism.

    And the psychologist, who is not a neurologist, says there is no evidence of a neurological problem. Does she have MRI images or CT scans to support that claim? Any tomors on the brain? Any proof in her hands?

    If it's not obvious, I put no stock in what a psychologist says. Put a real doctor on the stand. There really might be a physical problem and nobody is actually checking?