Psychiatrist: Man may have been sleepwalking when he killed his son
Posted March 5, 2015
Durham, N.C. — A Durham County man wasn't aware of his actions more than four years ago when he killed his 4-year-old son, a forensic psychiatrist said Thursday.
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 Blake and attacks on his older children, Alexis, who was 13 at the time, and Devon, who was 10, in their home.
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. Durham County deputies had to break through a door to get to him.
Mitchell testified Wednesday that he doesn't recall anything between going to bed the night before the attacks and waking up in a hospital bed.
Dr. George Corvin, a forensic psychiatrist who examined Mitchell days after the 2010 attacks and three more times since then, said it was "a very remote possibility" that Mitchell was lying about his lack of recall, but that would be "exceptionally unlikely."
Mitchell was likely suffering from "non-REM parasomnia," said Corvin, who spent the entire seventh day of the trial on the witness stand and was expected to return on Friday.
"It is a sleep disorder," he said, with "parts of your brain effectively being awake (and) parts of your brain effectively being still asleep and engaging in conduct that is unusual but ... unknown consciously."
The rare condition – Corvin said he's diagnosed it only one other time – can be brought on by stress and a lack of sleep.
Mitchell testified that he was unemployed since late 2008 and was trying to save the family's home, which went into foreclosure in June 2010, while keeping the foreclosure from his wife and children so they wouldn't worry. He also said that he usually got only one or two hours of sleep a night in the weeks leading up to Blake's death.
Corvin said Mitchell doesn't fit the profile of someone who intentionally kills a family member, noting that very few such cases involve strangulation and that Mitchell had no history of domestic violence.
"I would describe him as somebody that is habitually non-violent. In fact, I would really describe him as almost conflict avoidant," Corvin said.
A person in a parasomnia state also wouldn't feel any pain, such as the stab wounds Mitchell inflicted on himself, Corvin said.
"It's my opinion that (Mitchell) was rendered medically and neurologically unable to engage in the planning of those behaviors," he said of the attacks. "I do not believe he was capable of forming a specific intent (to harm his children)."
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.
Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols tried to dent Corvin's theory, getting the psychiatrist to acknowledge that Mitchell has lied about parts of his past. Yet, Corvin was adamant that the defense's theory of the case didn't influence his diagnosis.
"While I think it's fine for attorneys to have ideas that they want to inquire about, the mental health defenses that may or may not apply to a case," he said. "If I disagree with them and they continue to debate that subject with me, then we have a very short working relationship."