Durham man accused of killing his son goes to trial

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Joseph Mitchell, a Durham man accused of killing his son, went to trial on Friday. (WTVD)

The first day of testimony in the murder trial of a Durham father charged with the death of his 4-year-old left the defendant uncontrollably wiping away tears.

Joseph Mitchell, 50, is accused of first degree murder in connection with Blake Mitchell's death and attempted murder after he allegedly attacked his other children ages 10 and 13 at the time of the September 2010 murder.

Prosecutors say before Mitchell suffocated his youngest son, he tried to push his daughter's head between her bed and a wall. She fought back and testified that she passed out. She said she was woken up by her brother's screams.

"She felt someone smothering her, pushing her head against the wall," said Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols during his opening statement. "That person was her father."

Her surviving brother also testified against their father today. Neither sibling has seen Joseph Mitchell since the night of the murder.

Under cross examination, the defense asked Mitchell's daughter whether she knew her father still loved her. The question triggered the first sign of emotion Mitchell has shown publicly since his arrest and more than four years of court proceedings.

The first day of testimony in his murder trial included photographs of the crime scene, including a Halloween mask Mitchell is said to have worn while attacking his children.

Defense attorneys told the jury how Mitchell's son was killed is not in question, but rather why Mitchell committed the crime.

They contend two years of unemployment and other financial problems, including a home foreclosure, had overwhelmed Mitchell. He's claiming automatism or "sleepwalking" as a defense.

"You won't hear a single witness say that Joe Mitchell didn't love, cherish or adore his children," said defense attorney Jay Ferguson, pointing out that Mitchell didn't act out of malice or intent.

He also told jury the case and Mitchell's behavior that ill-fated night was bizarre.

Mitchell would survive four self-inflicted stab wounds to his neck and torso.

If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Testimony resumes Monday morning.

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