Sleepwalking Defense Leads to Acquittal in Child Murder Case

A North Carolina man has been acquitted of killing his four-year-old son in 2010.   The verdict was greeted with dismay by  family members.  

According to witnesses, 50-year-old Joseph Anthony Mitchell Mitchell attempted to kill his other two children, 13-year-old Lexi Mitchell and 10-year-old Devon Mitchell in their Durham, N.C. home on September 21, 2010, just hours after he had gone to sleep.   Lexi Mitchell told investigators that she woke up to find her father wearing a Halloween mask.  He wasf attempting to cover their mouths or faces and she was forced to fight him off.    When she saw her father attack four-year-old Blake Mitchell, she attempted to aid her brother and her father fled.   After Lexi got her mother, they found Blake unresponsive and called 911 for help.  

In the meantime, Joseph Mitchell had barricaded himself in his office and, when authorities found him later, he had a number of self-inflicted stab wounds to his neck and torso.   He would later testify that he had no memory of anything that happened between going to sleep and waking up in hospital afterward.

A forensic psychiatrist testifying at the trial of suggested that Mitchell may have been sleepwalking at the time of the murder.   Dr. George Corvin stated that he had interviewed Mitchell just days after the murder and concluded that his actions were due to "non-REM parasomnia."   "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."   Though the condition is rare (Dr. Corvin reported having diagnosed it only once previously), he felt that it was caused by extreme stress and lack of sleep.

As Dr. Corvin reported in his testimony, Mitchell does not fit into the category of someone who would deliberately kill a family member.    Along with having no discernible motive for his son's murder,  Mitchell gave no indication that he knew what he was doing at the time.  Mitchell's defense attorney, Jay Ferguson, maintains that his client was a loving father who had been suffering from sleep problems apparently linked to his being unemployed and the bank foreclosing on the family home.   Ferguson invoked the "automatism" defense and cited the circumstances of the bizarre attack as evidence of his lack of premeditation.

Prosecutors disputed the automatism defense and suggested that Mitchell had been motivated by his financial troubles to try to kill his children.   Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols attempted to refute parts of Dr. Corvin's testimony by suggesting that Mitchell had lied about his past.   Dr. Corvin replied that it was "extremely unlikely" that Mitchell was faking.

The verdict was handed down last Friday after a jury unanimously found Mitchell not guilty.   One member of the jury later stated that she was "embarrassed" by the verdict but they had no choice since the prosecution failed to prove malice or intent.  "We would have definitely convicted him of manslaughter, but we felt like our hands were tied," she said.

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