Joseph Mitchell, a North Carolina man who killed his 4-year-old son while sleepwalking was found not guilty of murder on Wednesday. Mitchell had pleaded the defense of automatism in relation to the strangulation death of his son, Blake, on Sept. 22, 2010. He claimed to have been sleepwalking when he attacked his son, his two other children, and his wife in their Durham home.
Mitchell also locked himself inside a bathroom following the incident, where he stabbed himself and slit his throat. Prosecutors believed Mitchell had angrily lashed out at his family due to stress over financial problems.
In Nov. 2013, Mitchell rejected a plea deal from prosecutors, under the terms of which he would have pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a 43-year prison sentence.
Instead, Mitchell opted to fight the charges using the automatism defense, under which a defendant claims to have physically committed the acts in question while lacking the voluntary mental awareness required to be found guilty under the law.
A defense witness, forensic psychiatrist Dr. George Corvin, argued Mitchell was likely suffering from a sleep disorder known as “non-REM parasomnia,” whereby he unconsciously performed random acts, WRAL reported.
Corvin said Mitchell’s lack of sleep and stress over his unemployment and financial troubles may have led to the condition.
Defense attorney Jay Ferguson said 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.”
In video from the court, Mitchell could be seen showing little emotion as the verdict was read, save for briefly closing his eyes.