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'Violent sleepwalking' defense works for boy's strangler

Christine Perolini, second from left, is comforted by

Christine Perolini, second from left, is comforted by friends and family on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 after Joseph Anthony Mitchell is found not guilty of killing their four-year-old son, Blake Mitchell. Photo Credit: AP Photo/The Herald-Sun, Christine T. Nguyen

DURHAM, N.C. - The "violent sleepwalking" defense worked for a man who strangled his 4-year-old and tried to kill his other two children.

A jury decided unanimously that Joseph Anthony Mitchell is not guilty of murder and attempted murder after an expert witness said he was effectively unconscious at the time of his attacks four years ago.

Jurors had asked Superior Court Judge James Roberson if they could consider a lesser verdict of manslaughter, but the judge said it was all or nothing: murder, or not guilty.

Mitchell, 50, sobbed after Wednesday's verdict, but made no comment as he walked out of court a free man.

His ex-wife, Christine Perolini, was so shocked that she hyperventilated and had to be wheeled out on a stretcher.

Mitchell testified that he was in financial distress and had not been sleeping well.

Prosecutors said those financial difficulties drove Mitchell to kill his son Blake and try to kill the others. Mitchell's 13-year-old and 10-year-old children said they fought him off.

But a defense expert said Mitchell's stress and lack of sleep likely resulted in "non-REM parasomnia," a sleep disorder whose sufferers can perform random acts unconsciously. Because of this disorder, he was incapable of exercising criminal intent, the expert said.

A psychologist who testified for the prosecution after repeatedly interviewing Mitchell said he had no mental condition that would have left him unconscious during the attacks, and that he must have consciously planned them.

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