Berlin Murder Trial Hinges On Self-Defense Argument

SNOW HILL – Closing arguments in the first-degree murder trial of an Ocean City man charged with the beating death of a Berlin teen in May wrapped up late yesterday, leaving the 12-member jury with the task of deciding if the defendant maliciously struck and killed the victim with a baseball bat, or if he wielded the bat in self defense in the face of an angry mob.

The murder trial of accused killer Dominic Richard Canale, 22, of Ocean City, began on Wednesday with passionate opening statements by lead attorneys on both sides. Certain facts in the case have not been disputed. For example, both sides concur Canale swung the baseball bat that struck and killed Michael Harry Mitchell on May 29 during a fight at a party in the Decatur Farms community in Berlin.

Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Farlow, prosecuting the case, spent much of Wednesday afternoon and all day yesterday trying to convince the jury Canale struck Mitchell with intent and malice, pointing out the defendant had ample opportunity to avoid the tragic conflict. On the other hand, defense attorney Charles Bruce Anderson 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 scene.

Both sides agree the fateful night began with a night of parties and heavy drinking by groups of young people celebrating Stephen Decatur High School’s graduation. A party at Libertytown Rd. in Berlin broke up early and many of the participants were invited to another party on Dueling Way Drive in Decatur Farms hosted by Michael Ryan, 31.

At the Decatur Farms party, Ryan, who was charged last month with second-degree assault for his role in the incident, allegedly hit Canale in the face during a minor altercation, knocking him down. Ryan and many of the party-goers continued to pursue Canale and his friends, including Fernando “Freddy” Musiani, 19, of Ocean City, who pleaded guilty last week to reckless endangerment as part of a plea deal, across the front yard until they reached the car in which they had arrived at the party. It was at this point attorneys on both sides argued the crux of the whole case occurred.

Farlow told the jury during his opening statement on Wednesday it was at that point Canale had several opportunities to get in the car and leave the scene before it escalated any further. Instead, Canale got a bat out of the trunk, which he allegedly knew was there, and struck and killed Mitchell.

“The important part is this,” he said. “Canale never tried to leave. He asked Musiani for the keys to the car, not so he could drive away. He got the keys so he could get in the trunk of the car and get out that bat. Canale had every opportunity to leave, but instead, he went for that bat. He knew exactly what he was doing. That is not self-defense. After he murdered Mikey Mitchell, he did just that. He told his friends we have to get out of here.”

Meanwhile, Anderson painted a different picture of the events leading up to the deadly blow. While both sides agree, for the most part, on how Canale and his friends ended up at the car with Ryan and the others, including Mitchell, following them, his version of the events differs from the prosecutor’s.

“Dominic and Freddy were followed by a gang and as he gets to the car, he finds the doors locked,” he said. “Dominic asks for the keys because he knows Freddy has been drinking. As he turns around, the mob is upon him. Ryan is out front, now with his shirt off, assumes a fighting position and says to Dominic ‘square up, bitch.’ A serious fist-fight ensued and all hell broke loose.”

Anderson told the jury Musiani popped the trunk at that point and Canale reached for the bat in an attempt to scare away Ryan and the mob and he was attacked again. He then described how Canale came to strike Mitchell with the bat, not with malice and aforethought, but in self-defense.

“At that point, he didn’t know what was going to happen and he feared for his life,” Anderson told the jury. “Somebody jumped on his back and his T-shirt was ripped from his body. He swung the bat wildly behind him and struck Mitchell by accident. He never took aim and the victim was never in his sight. He was defending himself against an angry, intoxicated mob.”

In his opening statement, Anderson attempted to persuade the jury the incident began as a peaceful, innocent party and escalated to the point Canale had to defend himself with the bat. He pointed at Ryan as the instigator of the entire incident after his seemingly innocent exchange with Canale. Anderson said Ryan told his guests to keep quiet because he didn’t want the police or neighbors to know he was having a party.

Canale allegedly said something to Ryan to the effect “you’re a funny guy,” at which point Ryan punched Canale in the face, knocking him to the ground and setting in motion the tragic chain of events.

“The twisted story starts with an indiscriminant altercation involving Dominic Canale and Michael Ryan,” he said. “But for the chain of events instigated by Michael Ryan, a 31-year-old man who invited underage drinking at his home, we wouldn’t be here today. Michael Ryan set this thing in motion and pushed this incident to the point Dominic Canale had no choice but to defend himself. Ryan set this chain of events in motion. This party turned on its ear in an instant. It went from peaceful to violent in an instant.”

Anderson said Ryan “hauled off and hit Canale in the face, knocked him down and knocked him off the porch.” Canale allegedly lost his Play Station and his hat during that initial contact and later tried to go back for them as the fight escalated. According to Anderson, everybody was told to leave, and Canale, Musiani and the others were attempting to do just that when Ryan and the mob followed them to their car parked on a cul de sac about 30 or 40 feet away.

Also according to Anderson, at some point during the riot, Canale and his friends heard somebody in the mob say, “I’ll get a gun,” which allegedly only contributed to their fear. Anderson told the jury when Canale, Musiani and the others finally did get in the car to leave after Mitchell was struck with the bat, they were so scared they bent the key in the ignition while attempting to start to car and flee.

After the jury was selected on Wednesday and before opening statements, Judge Theodore Eschenberg ruled on a handful of pre-trial motions remaining including an alleged statement Canale made about the bat earlier in the evening hours before the deadly altercation. According to Anderson, Canale, Musiani and the others in the car stopped to buy beer at an Ocean City convenience store hours before any of the parties they planned to attend.

At that point, Canale allegedly picked the bat up from the trunk, swung it around and allegedly said to the others, “this could really hurt someone.” Anderson made a motion to prevent the alleged statement from being divulged to the jury during trial, but Eschenberg denied the motion.

Both sides have extensive witness lists including dozens of individuals at the fateful party that night, and both sides agree finding the truth from the myriad of witnesses and their alcohol-tainted memories of the events could be difficult.

“I’m going to be upfront with you,” Farlow told the jury during his opening statement. “This isn’t a perfect case. You’re going to hear a lot of witnesses and most of them had been drinking. It was 4:30 in the morning when this incident occurred.”

Witness testimony started Wednesday afternoon and continued all day yesterday. Prior to lunch, the defense sought to have the first- and second-degree murder and first-degree assault charges dismissed against Canale, but the judge rejected the motion. Canale has also been charged with two counts each of second-degree assault and reckless endangerment. The case is expected to be given to the jury by today at the latest.