SNOW HILL – After listening to the anguished testimony from both families, as well as the contrite apology of the Ocean City man convicted of manslaughter in the beating death of another man at a party gone terribly wrong last May, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenberg last Friday sentenced Dominic Richard Canale, 22, to 10 years in prison, the maximum allowable under the law.
After a three-day trial in November, a Worcester County jury found Canale guilty of manslaughter in the beating death of Michael Harry Mitchell, 19, of Berlin, but the convicted killer’s fate was left in the balance pending the completion of a pre-sentence investigation. Last Friday, Canale was back in the same courtroom where his trial was held for a sentencing hearing, at the conclusion of which Eschenberg sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Family and friends from both sides piled into the courtroom early last Friday to make their own appeals for justice or leniency in the tragic case, and after reviewing the facts and hearing the testimony, Eschenberg said his decision came down to one simple question: Did Michael Mitchell have to die that night?
“You took a minor fight to another level with complete disregard for human life and safety,” the judge said. “By definition, that’s what manslaughter is. It’s like taking a loaded gun and firing it into a crowd and then saying ‘I didn’t mean to hit anybody.’ Did he have to die? If you are honest with yourself, the answer is no.”
From the beginning, there was never any doubt Canale swung the baseball bat that killed Mitchell on that fateful morning on May 29 during a fight at a party in the Decatur Farms community in Berlin. Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Farlow spent much of the two-day trial trying to convince the jury Canale struck Mitchell with intent and malice, pointing out the defendant had ample opportunity to avoid the tragic conflict.
Defense attorney Charles Bruce Anderson, meanwhile, painted the picture of Canale wielding the bat as a measure of last resort, striking the victim by accident while trying to keep an angry and intoxicated mob at bay until he and his friends could flee.
The fateful night began with a night of parties and heavy drinking by young people celebrating Stephen Decatur High School’s graduation. A party on Libertytown Rd. in Berlin broke up early and many of the revelers were invited to another party on Dueling Way Drive in Decatur Farms hosted by Michael Ryan, 31.
At the Decatur Farms party, Ryan allegedly punched Canale in the face as many as four times during what started as a minor altercation and escalated into a major brawl. According to testimony, Ryan and many of the party-goers continued to pursue Canale and his friends, including Fernando Musiani, 19, of Ocean City, across the front yard until they reached their car. It was at this point both sides argued the crux of the whole case occurred.
The jury ultimately eschewed first- and second-degree murder charges for the lesser manslaughter conviction, citing the apparent lack of real malice in the attack, leaving Canale’s fate in the hands of the judge. Before rendering his decision last Friday, the judge listened to gut-wrenching testimony from friends and family on both sides of the aisle, starting with the victim’s mother, Annie Mitchell, who recalled the early morning phone call from her son’s father that fateful early morning in May.
“On that day, I got a call no parent should ever have to make or receive,” she said. “While en route from Hebron to Berlin, I got a call from his father who said ‘he’s gone.’ Can you imagine waiting for hours just for one last time to see your son, to hold your baby one last time?”
Annie Mitchell implored the judge to sentence Canale to the maximum allowed, citing the sentence the victim’s family is already living with and will continue to live with.
“We’re suffering through the most agonizing death sentence imaginable, living without your murdered son,” she said. “His most basic right, his right to life, was cruelly taken from him and I will never see that smile again.”
The victim’s father, Michael Mitchell, Sr., echoed his ex-wife’s sentiments, telling the judge how the incident profoundly changed his life and the lives of his family, forever.
“I’ve lost my son, my namesake, to a senseless murder,” he said. “I’ve been robbed of the most precious thing in my life. May 29 is the day my life came to a complete stop. Justice to me would be Dominic taking my son’s place, but I know that will not happen. My and family and I have already been given the worst sentence, a life sentence without Mikey.”
The elder Michael Mitchell told the judge how his son and his girlfriend had been discussing marriage before he was killed and that the couple had already picked out a name for their first child. He begged the judge to honor his last promise he made to his son by sentencing Canale to the maximum allowed. For her part, the victim’s girlfriend said she was finding it difficult to move on with her life.
“We were making plans to get married,” she said. “He was the love of my life. Throughout all this, I wanted to say to people ‘please just leave me alone.’ The only person who could help, the only person who would understand, is now gone.”
Mitchell’s brother Brian related stories of their childhood, but said they were all he had to cling to since the tragedy.
“Now, all I have left are memories,” he said. “We can’t make any more, so I have to hold on to those I have.”
Several other family members testified or read prepared statements into the record on the victim’s behalf and the message was consistent throughout. When they were finished, it was time for the court to hear from Canale’s friends and family, starting with his defense attorney, who urged Eschenberg to sentence his client within the guidelines of two to six years.
“Because he is so young, he has a pretty non-descript background, but through all the letters, what struck me is how significant he had become in so many lives,” said Anderson. “By most accounts, he is a honest, responsible person. He was the potential to be a very productive member of society.”
When it was her turn to speak, the defendant’s mother, Maureen Canale, tried to paint a picture of her son in a more flattering light.
“I am stunned by what I have heard in this courtroom today,” she said. “I have listened to the most heinous, vile description of my son. I am sorry. My first instinct was to reach out to you, but this was a murder investigation and that was not meant to be.”
She said she had rehearsed what she would say if and when she had the opportunity to speak to the victim’s family, but could never find the words.
“For seven and a half months, I have been talking to Mikey Mitchell and his family in my head, trying to make sense of what happened, but there is no answer, there never will be any answer,” she said. “When my son told me this, I went down on my knees. Who was Mike Mitchell? How did this happen? When I looked online for information about him, I saw a slide show and I was struck by how similar they are. If only they had known each other.”
Finally, it was time to hear from Canale himself, and the convicted killer sounded sincere as he addressed the victim’s family.
“There are no words I can express to describe the impact this will have and has had on so many people,” he said. “There is nothing I can do or say to express how sorry I feel, how deeply sorry I am to the Mitchell family, and I know this will never be enough.”
Canale went on to describe how his life had been changed forever, regardless of the sentence the judge handed down.
“There is inexplicable sadness in my heart I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ll never forget the next day when I learned Mike Mitchell had died. I knew it was a moment our lives changed forever. I had no intention to have what happened that night, but I must apologize profusely. Life can change in a single moment.”
With the testimony dispensed with, it Eschenberg’s time to address the court, and he boiled the tragic incident down to its simplest terms before meting out the 10-year sentence for Canale.
“What happened is pretty simple,” he said. “Everybody drank a little too much, a fight ensued and you got hit two times. You asked for the keys, not to get in the car and leave, but to get that bat. You didn’t go to the door, you went to the trunk, got that bat, took a swing and killed somebody.”