Local News

'Sleepwalking' murder trial ends in acquittal

Posted March 11, 2015 4:38 p.m. EDT
Updated March 11, 2015 10:29 p.m. EDT

— 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 was found not guilty of the crime Wednesday.

A nine-woman, three-man jury deliberated less than four hours before acquitting Joseph Anthony Mitchell 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, blinked back tears, looked skyward and then bowed his head when the verdicts were announced. Meanwhile, his ex-wife, Christine Perolini, the children's mother, sobbed and began hyperventilating. Court officials had to call paramedics to treat her, and she was taken out of the Durham County Courthouse on a stretcher.

Mitchell declined to comment as he walked out of the Durham County Detention Center about an hour later.

Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols said he was disappointed in the verdicts but respected the jury's decision.

Jurors clearly didn't want to convict Mitchell of first-degree murder, asking Superior Court Judge James Roberson after a little more than an hour of deliberations Wednesday morning if they could consider a manslaughter conviction. Roberson told them earlier the only three verdicts they could consider were guilty of first- or second-degree murder or not guilty.

After a lunch break, the jury watched a video of the inside of the Mitchell home taken hours after the attacks and returned to deliberations for about 90 minutes before reaching the not guilty verdicts.

In a text message to WRAL News, Echols said manslaughter wouldn't have been "an appropriate disposition" in the case.

"If the defendant committed the acts while conscious, he is guilty of first-degree murder, in my opinion," Echols texted. "But if he was unconscious, then the law says he is not guilty of any crime."

Witnesses testified during the three-week trial that Mitchell was a loving father. But he testified last week 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.

Dr. George Corvin, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the defense, said the stress and lack of sleep likely resulted in a case of "non-REM parasomnia," a sleep disorder where he could perform random acts unconsciously and could become violent if triggered by a loud noise.

Because of that, Corvin 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.

Prosecutors dismissed the "sleepwalking defense," saying the the family's financial difficulties drove Mitchell to kill Blake and try to kill the other children. After the attacks, he barricaded himself in a home office, where he stabbed himself three times and slit his throat.

Parasomnia is an unusual defense, but it's not unheard of in North Carolina.

Four years ago, a Louisburg man charged with fatally stabbing his sister and wounding his mother was allowed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter after mental health experts determined he was sleepwalking at the time.