On the two occasions that Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman spoke to Jonathan Canales this morning, at the beginning and end of a 90-minute hearing to decide whether Canales is competent to stand trial on charges related to shooting his wife in the back of the neck a November evening in 2015, Canales showed none of the characteristics that defendants–or oddballs–usually display in that seat when the judge speaks to them. He wasn’t humble. He wasn’t timid. He wasn’t slumped in his chair. He didn’t even mumble. When the judge addressed him, he shot back clearly and assertively, as if his commanding officer was addressing him, starting with his swearing in. When he was asked if he was swearing to tell the truth, he didn’t say “I do,” as almost all witnesses do. He said: “Roger that.”
Canales, now 29, served in the Army until 2009, part of that service in Iraq. Today’s hearing revealed that he was injured in an explosion–it wasn’t clear if the explosion was combat-related–an event that left him traumatized and, combined with the rest of his tour, led to psychotic issues, delusions, possibly schizophrenia, certainly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, according to various doctors. In sum, he is one of the innumerable men and women sent to combat in the Middle East as young heroes and returned broken in shards invisible to the eye, but no less cutting and at times lethal to those around them, or to themselves.
On November 15, 2014, as his then-common law wife Tiffany Norman was having dinner–shortly after putting her three young children to bed–Canales is alleged to have shot his wife with a small caliber gun. “I didn’t want to but it had to be done,” she said he told her. He then neglected to care for her until almost three hours later in the evening, when he claimed to a 911 dispatcher that she had shot herself. In jail, after reading a statement Norman had written about the incident, he tried to hang himself. Jail staff stopped the suicide attempt. Years before, he sought to have himself committed to a psychiatric hospital, but a sheriff’s deputy told him that the only way he could be Baker Acted–committed, even against his will–was if he were to show he was a danger to himself or others. So he put a gun to his head in front of his father. He was committed.
Last June, Circuit Judge J. David Walsh found Canales incompetent to stand trial and committed him to a state psychiatric hospital. Canales was out on $100,000 bail at the time. But he reported to jail and was then committed to the Northeast Florida Treatment Center.
The question before Foxman this morning was whether Canales should remain committed to psychiatric care, or whether the trial proceedings should resume. After 90 minutes of at times tortuous and contradictory testimony from two doctors and a counselor who have interacted with Canales in different capacities, Foxman ruled that Canales would remain committed. But he also ruled that Canales should be moved to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, a 1,000-bed facility northwest of Tallahassee, to start over with a new treatment team and new pairs of eyes, Foxman said.
The judge left little doubt that it was essentially a question of time before he would deem Canales competent for trial. “I need you in a better spot right now in terms of your mental status to have a trial on these matters,” Foxman said. “I think we need to sit down and talk again is the bottom line,” the judge said, ordering Canales to cooperate, “be polite, courteous and engaged in your treatment.”
Assistant State Prosecutor Christy Opsahl and Canales’s attorney, Garry Wood, had both made convincing arguments, through their witnesses, against and for declaring him still incompetent to stand trial.
Canales, Opsahl said, “is manipulating the treatment center, he is manipulating the court system, and he is manipulating the diagnostic test.”
Opsahl’s case was somewhat damaged by the seeming un-involvement and distance of her first witness, George R. Williams, 65, a forensic psychiatrist at the Northeast Florida Treatment Center–not because Williams’s testimony was piped in through a large-screen television, but because Williams came across as the prototypical doctor at a state hospital to whom patients are little more than the documents they happen to be ruffling at that moment: numerous times Williams had to pause to find the answer to a question in his paperwork, even though he claimed to Woods that he’d read Canales’s file before his testimony this morning. Williams had reached his conclusion that Canales was competent to stand trial because, he said, he was a “malingerer,” meaning that Canales was exaggerating his symptoms on purpose, to stay at a hospital rather than go to jail.
Also, because, Williams said, “he understands the nature of his charges, understands what the criminal allegations area against him, he appreciates the seriousness of the legal charges and can appreciate the penalties that can be imposed if prosecuted and found guilty of those charges.”
But William s had reached those conclusions with little to no knowledge of Canales’s case files at the Veterans Administration, or after his Baker Act, or at the jail, save a one-sheet document.
Rafael Lola, a social service counselor at the same facility, buttressed Opsahl’s case when he described how Canales would be more willing to talk about his issues–and the case itself–but only when bribed with candy or food, as is apparently the routine practice at the facility at some of its counseling sessions. There, Canales was also found to have, for several weeks, walked around with tin foil wrapped around a hat on his head: he had paranoid delusions that he was being targeted by several national spy agencies. In one case, he also hopped on a golf cart and rode around (“this was going to help him keep there longer,” Lola said, “he did say he was afraid of more jail”), and in another case “there was an incident where he was observed in his room snorting what appeared to be a white powdery substance,” which turned out to be a prescription medication he’d not been given.
A doctor Canales’s family hired, Steven Bloomfield, who testified in person, described more intimate knowledge of Canales’s case, from meeting him and his parents in person and tracking his case. Bloomfield by no means declared Canales absolutely competent: he qualified his evaluation, but concluded that on the whole, Canales still remained incompetent for now.
“I found him acceptable in a number of areas, I found him unacceptable in a few areas, so it wasn’t the kind of evaluation where OK, this person is totally incompetent,” Bloomfield said. Canales’s parents, who were in the courtroom, did not seem pleased when they heard the doctor say he was “surprised that he bonded out,” after his first evaluation. Bloomfield said Canales “needed to be contained in a secure setting.”
Today, over Woods’s objections, Foxman revoked Canales’s $100,000 bond, the strongest indication that while the judge was willing to give Canales the benefit of the doubt on his competence, he was not willing to take chances on his freedom. His conversation with Canales at the end of the hearing left little doubt that Canales was intelligent, aware, and quite self-awware, though none of that could be interpreted as an expression of competence or incompetence.
The judge asked him if he was being treated well at the psychiatric hospital.
“Is it better than being free? No. I can;t answer that freely, sir,” he said.
“How about when you’re in the Flagler County inmate facility, how are they treating you?”
“I’ll tell you what, it’s an unsanitary place,” Canales said.
“Well, I spend a lot of time out there myself, I understand the complaint,” Foxman said. “I’ll straighten them out.”
When Foxman asked him if he has children, he said one. (He and Norman had one child together; she had two other children.) “I believe he’s 3,” Canales said, when the judge asked him how old his child was.
“Do you get to see him at all?”
“Nope,” Canales snapped.