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Jury to begin deliberations Wednesday in 'sleepwalking' murder trial

Posted March 10, 2015

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— The case of Joseph Anthony Mitchell, a man who claims to have been sleepwalking when he killed his son more than four years ago, is now in the hands of a jury after attorneys on Tuesday presented their closing arguments.

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.

Defense attorney Jay Ferguson said Tuesday that the jury should look at the evidence in the case and put aside their anger over the death of Blake. He said Mitchell was unaware of his actions.

“Temper that anger with rationality. Look at the evidence in this case and decide if you are fully satisfied and entirely convinced,” Ferguson said. “Because what we don’t want is another tragedy, and that’s the wrongful conviction of a man who loved his kids more than anything on this earth.”

Ferguson said the state has not proven beyond a reasonable that Mitchell intended to kill his son and harm his older children, and he said there was no motive for Mitchell to harm his family.

“If he intended to kill Devon, why would he leave the room on three different occasions and come back?” Ferguson asked the jury. “If he really intended to, he could have done so. If he intended to kill his whole family, why wouldn’t he start with his wife? What was the plan?”

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said that the family’s financial troubles and Mitchell’s “prideful” manner are what led to the murder of his son, saying that Mitchell created a “façade” that kept his wife and family from knowing his true character.

“He couldn’t come through for his family. He used a veil of lies to create, through deceit, the Joseph Mitchell that he wanted to be. The façade to hide the Joseph Mitchell that he was,” Echols said.

Echols finished his closing arguments by asking the jury to provide justice for Blake.

“If this is a community that protects its children, there is only one verdict. If this is a system in which justice matters, there is only one verdict. If you, the jury, want to speak the truth with your verdict, there is only one verdict,” Echols said. “Blake Mitchell had four years, seven months and six days on this earth. The defendant will live with your verdict. Blake doesn’t have that chance.”

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.

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.

Ferguson on Tuesday repeatedly questioned why Laney didn't reference parts of Mitchell's records in writing her report, suggesting that she had "confirmation bias" and was cherry-picking details to support her conclusions.

"My job is not to determine the facts," Laney said. "I don't even know if I have all of the facts. I try and give facts that are related to what I need to answer."

If convicted, Mitchell could spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.


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  • Jack Miller Mar 10, 2015
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    Those who have not watched the trial in entirety have no grounds to comment. Allow those 12 people to make the call. I have watched the trial and can state the I initially believed that this was a plausible scenario based on other cases such as this. To other's points - agreed about the neurological aspects. Do you think the prosecution is going to seek an intelligent un-biased "expert witness"? Really? Their whole existence is to railroad people. None the less, the fact that he has no violent past, no domestics issues and was for all intents an involved father make me wonder....

  • Eric Peters Mar 10, 2015
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    Agree that the prosecution expert made a weak witness. Parasomnias--sleep disorders--need to be diagnosed by neurologists or psychiatrists, not psychologists. Psychologists can diagnose narcissistic personality disorders (NPD), but someone with an NPD could also have a parasomnia. NPD does not rule out parasomnias--someone could have both.

    And then, there's the matter of Mitchell's disorganized behavior. Why did he only kill one child and make weak attempts to kill his other children, if his intent was to kill family? A cold-blooded, personality disordered individual would certainly act more purposefully.

    A fascinating case from the mental health perspective. It looks like the defense has introduced reasonable doubt that could lead to acquittal, at least on appeal.

  • AshLeigh Marie Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    I'm still unsure about this. This man is not the first or the only man to suffer from financial difficulties. He did lie to his wife and his former employers about his job experience and training, as well as on his LinkED profile. So was he still in this "non-REM parasomnia" when he stabbed himself and slit his own throat? I just don't know because where are other people who were in similar financial situations who tried to kill their families? Of course I'm only going off what I can read from the news. It just doesn't make sense and to me, if something doesn't make sense, it usually isn't true.

  • Mannin Black Mar 10, 2015
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    View quoted thread

    Exactly! A psychologist is not a doctor. A psychiatrist is a doctor. Big difference.

  • Alexia Proper Mar 10, 2015
    user avatar

    "She argued that he consciously planned and carried out the crime."

    Unless she has a medical degree in neurology and actually looked at MRI or CT scans or even looked at various chemicals present in his body, I don't think she's qualified to make such a statement.

    I have no idea whether the man is guilty or not, but what he says really could have happened and we have a psychologist on the stand - a psychologist, people! - saying he had no medical conditions! This is bad. Get a qualified expert on the stand.