Jonathan Canales seemed to have no idea what he was doing or why he was re-appearing before a circuit judge this afternoon, even though it was Canales who had asked for a hearing to challenge the competence of the attorney who had defended him in his trial for attempted murder, which he lost in late 2018.
But Canales was more interested in retrying the case, and in talking about being brutalized in prison, rediscovering God, wishing he had testified at his trial and indicting the judicial system. Canales had an almost invisible chance to win his motion, especially since he represented himself. He made sure to bury that chance, leaving Circuit Judge Terence Perkins–who went out of his way to give Canales every chance to make his case–little choice but to deny his motion.
The hearing illustrates both the wide berth given defendants to plead various aspects of their case, and the very narrow parameters within which they are required to plead them. Lawyers are not eager to take cases with minimal chances of success, leaving defendants to dig deeper graves for themselves as they navigate a system that ends up appearing, to them, like a conspiracy designed to condemn at every turn, no matter how indulgent the judge. But none of this was pro-forma: Canales is serving a life term, and he’s only 34.
It did not help Canales that he was appearing by video feed from the Flagler County jail, where he had been transferred from state prison in DeSoto County, at considerable expense: the whole proceedings at his end could have been held from state prison. He could have summoned witnesses. He had none. He’d asked a woman to appear by Zoom as a “character witness.” That would have been irrelevant to the motion at hand, and the prosecution would have objected. In the event, the woman did not show.
The 45-minute hearing turned into an afterword to a grim ordeal from the moment Tiffany Norman and Canales jostled for the phone in a call to 911 from their trailer in the Mondex in November 2014, when Canales claimed Norman, his then-girlfriend and the mother of three children who were asleep in the house, had attempted to shoot herself, and Norman told him to stop lying audibly enough for the dispatcher to hear. An army veteran who said he was on full disability and suffered from PTSD, Canales claimed almost all along that he was innocent, though in a recorded interview with a detective he suggested that he may have shot Norman accidentally. After being judged incompetent to stand trial for a period and sent to a psychiatric hospital in Gainesville, Canales stood trial, was found guilty of attempted murder, and sentenced–by Perkins–to life in prison without parole. An appeals court upheld the conviction.
Canales filed a list of claims, all but one tossed out. The exception was his claim that Garry Wood, his private attorney, had been incompetent at trial because he’d not allowed him to testify. At least that was Canales’s claim, which he was expected to present to the judge today, backed up by evidence. But he had none. When Melissa Clark, the prosecutor on the case in 2018 and again today, repeatedly asked his recollection of conversations he had with Wood about testifying, Canales repeatedly said he could not remember. In any case he didn’t seem interested in discussing that.
“Something is wrong about this case, something is strange, I can’t put a finger on it,” he said, “I don’t have evidence, it sucks that I don’t have evidence, excuse my terminology. There’s something off about my actions that night, that wasn’t me.”
Perkins patiently edged him back toward the rails. “The issue that we have today is regarding your decision to testify or not to testify in this case,” the judge said. “Is there anything you would like to offer on that issue.”
Canales said he’d have wanted to testify, now. But again, that wasn’t the issue: had he told that to Wood at trial, and been refused? (Had that been the case, of course, it would have been a clear violation of his rights. But it’s a serious charge that demands evidence. None was presented, except to disprove his claim.) Clark attempted to elicit some clarity from Canales, asking him if he’d spoken with his attorney about testifying. Canales wouldn’t help himself.
“That was a long time ago, I can’t recall that,” Canales said.
Clark asked him if he remembered anything about being told of the pitfalls of testifying. “Mildly, but it’s hazy,” Canales said. Did he tell Wood he wanted to testify? “Yeah. I might have said it, but like I said, I can’t recall, it was seven years go, six years ago?” It was two years and four months ago. When Clark asked him whether he had explicitly told the judge that he was pleading the Fifth Amendment–invoking his right against self-incrimination–he said: “It doesn’t sound like something I would say. If I did say that, it’s really out of my character. That sounds like something Rick James on the Comedy Central would say. I’m way more intelligent than that to say that. Sounds like foolish rhetoric.”
He had, in fact, he not only said it, as a report of that trial day and a transcript of the proceedings show, but between Perkins and Clark, he was asked seven times in different ways to reaffirm his decision. “I don’t want to belabor this, but I do want to make sure you and I are on the same page,” Perkins had told him, just in case Canales may have been hazy about his understanding of “the Fifth.”
Today’s hearing didn’t unearth the transcript, which is in the court record: Canales made it unnecessary, even after Wood, who was part of today’s hearing, explained in precise details what he told Canales at the time, and why he was advising against him testifying, as defense attorneys do in most cases. “Any time a defendant takes the witness stand, which is solely their choice,” Wood said, “I can make recommendations or give advice, but it’s ultimately the client’s decision to take the witness stand or not. But I advised Mr. Canales that if he chose to take the witness stand, he’d be treated as any other witness, which would subject him to cross-examination.”
The jury had already seen a lengthy video of Canales’ interview with detectives, which made Canales look crude, indifferent, at times mean toward Norman and supremely self-centered. He’d given no indication during trial, with his demeanor and clenched-jaw looks, that he would project a less abrasive personality on the stand. Wood told him that the prosecution would exploit inconsistencies in his statements, and the jury would be left with his testimony as one of its last impressions, going into deliberations.
I’ve been beat, I’ve been bludgeoned in this great Department of Corrections several times,” Canales said, deflecting Clark’s question about his recollections of conversations with Wood. “I have traumatic brain injuries from the army,” he said (none of that evidence, if accurate, was part of the trial), “and this system has abused me. So I’m having a hard time mentally and physically and medically in this department. The things that I’ve gone through in this department are affecting my cognitive abilities.”
Clark told him he wasn’t answering her question.
After attempting again and again to discuss the trial, he talked about wanting to change his plea to not-guilty by reason of insanity. Canales’s insistence about wanting to enter an insanity plea renders any lingering questions about his guilt in the shooting of Tiffany Norman moot. It amounts to a confession that he did, in fact, shoot her–but that, in words he spoke again today and that have been a refrain in his correspondence to the court since his conviction, “I don’t know if I was in the right mind.” That too, has not been in question, since the court signed off on his incompetence to stand trial for more than two years before he was found to be fit.
The prosecution today continued to object to Canales’s digressions. He then issued his own indictment: “I don’t have anything further. I guess I don’t know what to say here. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a mechanic. I’m simple. I’m a simple person. I’m sorry I don’t speak your rhetoric. The system is designed to manipulate and skew people. It’s wrong. It’s satanistic.”
The judge didn’t let him get away with the self-pity. He told him the question was not about the law, but about the facts regarding what only Canales and Wood know of their conversation. ‘On that factual issue, is there any other evidence or argument you wish to offer?” Canales rifled through his papers and said he thought he was going to be able to say what he needed to say, not follow the judge’s rules. Canales again retreated to his current behavior and understanding of Christ, saying he has been working on himself since then. “I can refute just about anything they have to say because they don’t have anything on me,” he said.
“I understand Mr. Canales may have regrets now, now that the result is here, but it sounds from what Mr. Wood has told us that he was adamant from the get-go, he was not going to testify,” Clark said. “I know Mr. Canales tells us as he sits here today he doesn’t remember those conversations. I don’t know that I find that to be credible.”
Canales’s closing argument was a continuation of his indictment: “I’ve learned tremendously about the U.S. judicial system in the last few years,” he said, a statement at variance with his own claims of confusion and misunderstanding of today’s hearing, “there’s a lot that the public doesn’t know. I’m sorry I was ignorant to this latinistic system that is designed to confuse, manipulate and conflict people. My bad.”
Perkins found nothing objectionable in Wood’s representation, rather commending it. He ruled against Canales, who will be returning to prison in DeSoto. Canales can still appeal. He had a parting snub for the judge: “Have a nice time staying closed.”