In mid-October 2018, a Flagler County jury found Jonathan Canales guilty of attempting to murder his then-girlfriend, Tiffany Norman, in their Mondex trailer four years earlier as her three small children slept. Refusing him any leniency, Judge Terence Perkins sentenced him to life in prison without parole. An appeals court upheld the conviction a year later. Canales, now 34, has been serving his sentence at DeSoto prison in Arcadia.
Next Tuesday, Canales will be back before Perkins in Flagler Circuit Court, representing himself and arguing that his defense lawyer, Garry Wood, was ineffective because Wood convinced Canales not to testify at trial. He is looking for a break on his sentence, what’s called in the court’s language “post-conviction relief.” It’s a hail Mary with almost no chance of success, but it’s a defendant’s right. In this case–a case not lacking for perplexities–Canales could argue that the judge could have chosen to sentence him to anything from 25 years to life. Life was not mandatory. The judge chose the harshest sentence. Canales had also been sentenced to 25 years on an aggravated battery with a firearm conviction.
Canales sought a hearing on a series of other claims. Perkins denied them or granted some of them with no need for a hearing. Canales was booked back at the Flagler County jail the afternoon of Jan. 15.
He had maintained his innocence at trial, claiming Norman had shot herself in a suicide attempt. His lawyer made the case to the jury. The jury didn’t buy it. The jury was never told of Canales’s mental health, such as his two years of incompetency.
Though he did not testify, Canales’s stony, angry demeanor at trial and the contempt for Norman he projected in a long videotaped interview with detectives that the jury watched, almost certainly helped seal his fate. His mugshot taken a week ago portrays Canales even more strikingly hardened and defiant than he’d been in court, his jaw clenched, his hair almost entirely shaved. There will be no jury this time, just the lawyers and Perkins.
A letter he wrote Perkins a few months ago demolishes his own claims of innocence, if by the circuitous route of a familiar appeal among the condemned: a force outside himself made him do it.
Canales spent the past many months filing motions and writing Perkins long letters, handwritten in a barely legible scrawl of printed letters and copious misspellings, where he describes himself as a “100% disabled war veteran” and “totally a good man I’m convinced of it,” though much of what he writes implicitly seems to make the case of one of his earlier claims, denied by the judge, that he should have been allowed to put forth an insanity defense–or that he was incompetent to stand trial. The two aren’t the same: an insanity defense would have been an admission that he’d shot Norman. Insanity defenses are extremely rare in Florida, their success even more so.
His case dragged for years because he’d been institutionalized after the shooting and been found incompetent to stand trial, though at trial he was always coherent, direct, aware and lucid if the judge asked him any questions. And he was free, on bond, coming and going in the courtroom as he pleased.
That coherence is nowhere in his first letter to Perkins, which reads like the a cross between a second grader’s style and a conspiracy theorist’s ravings. The court added the letter to the docket last June. He tells the judge of 80 prisoners in the state “that need to be released,” including “32 or so feamails.” God, he tells Perkins, “is telling me to appeal not to your [court] but to you as a man please soften your heart in the name of Jesus Crist that you better your sperit of Decenrnment also Due to my case.” He then writes of “major extenuating cercumstances like demonic position and the High Jacking of [government] systems to destroy the world using Alpha Wave Tecnology project MK ultyra Blue Book, and PhilidiFa Experment.”
The more salient part of the letter, at least regarding the case itself, is Canales’s description of himself at trial. “It Litterly wasent me that Night it was something controling me and my lawyer said to me not to do an Insanty Plee Because Im not going to Have good odds and the Reason I cant speak about what Happnd to me IS It’s super [complicated] and classiFied Information and I took a oth when I signed up.” Difficult as it is to decipher, he then seems to say he can’t explain further to the judge who has no security clearance, but tells Perkins that he (Canales) is “at my pnical OF Progress where I am at and Need you to Exaunrate me Fully so I can go to school” and use his GI bill. He tells the judge that his power “is growing, but keeping The power I Have amungst such cretens may EFFict the world in a negitive manor.”
The tone, the content and the coherence do not change for the remaining pages.
Due process isn’t calibrated to the coherence or incoherence of a defendant, only to the legality and procedural precision of a defendant’s motions. Canales had trouble meeting that precision. He got help in prison to write his motions, some of them handwritten but neatly and lucidly in the hand of a fellow-inmate, one of which says he suffers from mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He wrote Perkins two more letters, describing himself as a “passifist” in one of them and raising yet another claim–that he may have been poisoned. In another, he redrew the judicial seal and surrounded it with biblical references about forgiveness and demons.
Once the court deciphered Canales’s various motions, it denied or deferred all by one. Since Canales had “failed to provide specific facts” that his attorney would have questioned his competency to proceed, Canales’s claim that he should have been afforded an insanity defense was denied. So were vague claims about jurors’ qualifications to be on the jury. The form that listed his sentence and judgment had an error: it listed his sentence for murder, not attempted murder. But Perkins found that to be a correctable scrivener’s error, not the sort of error that, under the rules, warrants a hearing.
Canales had also asked for a lawyer. In perhaps the only surprising ruling by the judge, Perkins denied the request. “There is no absolute right to the appointment of post-conviction counsel,” Perkins ruled, “and the need for counsel is a matter for the trial court to weigh and balance based upon several factors, including the adversarial nature of the proceeding, the complexity of the issues, the need for an evidentiary hearing, and the need for substantial legal research or expert knowledge.” He cited a case. “After considering the factors, this Court concludes that the appointment of counsel is not necessary.”
So Canales, in the seventh year of this case, will appear on his own to argue the sole claim the judge granted: that Woods was ineffective. The hearing is scheduled for Jan. 26 at 1:30 p.m. in Courtroom 401, though the public has not been allowed to attend such hearings in person due to covid restrictions. The hearings are typically available on the judge’s YouTube channel.