County Jurors Explain Murder Case Verdict

SNOW HILL – Members of both families sobbed and cried last week as the jury in the trial of an Ocean City man charged with the beating death of a Berlin teen in May announced guilty verdicts on the charges of manslaughter and assault, a decision said later was the right one given the simple facts of the case, despite its emotional undertones.

“It really came down to the accumulation of certain facts,” said one juror, who wanted to remain anonymous. “We heard so much testimony and a few different versions of the events, but there were certain facts in the case that were consistent throughout. At the end of the day, I think everybody was comfortable with the verdict.”

After two days of gut-wrenching testimony in the murder trial of Dominic Richard Canale, 22, of Ocean City, accused of striking and killing Michael Harry Mitchell with a baseball bat on May 29 in Berlin during a post-graduation party that went terribly wrong, the jury was handed the task of determining the fate of the defendant.

Closing statements wrapped up last Thursday afternoon and Judge Theodore Eschenberg instructed the 12 jurors to return at 9 a.m. the next morning to begin deliberating. The jury had a wide variety of charges in front of them including first- and second-degree murder. Of course, they could also choose to exonerate Canale, especially if they believed his attorney’s contention the defendant merely acted in self-defense in the face of an angry mob. Whatever they decided, the jurors, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, would have to wade through two days of emotional testimony.

“The judge did a great job of explaining what our job was,” one juror said later. “He told us we were the finders of fact and that we had to use common sense as we came to a conclusion. It was not an emotional decision. We didn’t look at it that way. I don’t think anybody came in there with a set opinion.”

The courtroom was filled last Friday morning with the family and friends of the victim on one side of the aisle and large contingent of family and friends of the accused on the other. Both sides fidgeted, chatted amongst themselves in hushed whispers, walked around, sat back down and otherwise preoccupied themselves as the tense hours ticked by.

For his part, Canale sat at the defense table with his attorney, Charles Bruce Anderson, for much of the time, but there were long stretches when he was left alone, an island among of sea of people waiting to hear his fate. He was stoic for the most part, but there were times when he waved, or winked, or looked longingly at his family and friends just a few feet away.

Finally, a little over three hours later, the 12-member jury returned and their foreman announced they had reached a verdict. In the end, they found Canale guilty of manslaughter and second-degree assault and not guilty on all of the other charges including first- and second-degree murder.

Before the verdicts were read, Eschenberg cautioned those in the courtroom he would not tolerate any emotional outbursts. For the most part, family and friends on both sides honored the judge’s request although there was a certain amount of emotional tension released after several long hours of waiting for the jury’s decision.

From the beginning, there was never any doubt Canale swung the bat that struck and 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.

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. Both sides agree 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.

Incidentally, Musiani was also indicted on first-degree murder and other charges for his role in the death of Mitchell. Two weeks ago he pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment and was sentenced to five years in jail with all suspended but the time he already served. He was also forced to pay $25,000 in restitution to the victim’s family.

Farlow argued Canale had several opportunities to get in the car and leave the scene before it escalated any further. Instead, he argued, Canale got a bat out of the trunk of Musiani’s car, which he allegedly knew was there and even toyed with earlier in the evening, and struck and killed Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Anderson painted a different picture of the events leading up to the deadly blow. The defense attorney said it was Ryan who escalated the fight and urged the intoxicated mob to pursue Canale, Musiani and others to their vehicle. According to this version, Musiani popped the trunk and Canale reached for the bat in and attempt to scare away Ryan and the mob when he was attacked again. With the angry crowd, led by Ryan, closing in, Canale swung the bat wildly in an attempt to keep them at bay, which is when he struck Mitchell in the head and ultimately killed him.

For two days, each attorney brought up witnesses to help corroborate their versions of the events as the jury sifted through which were more credible then the others. From the beginning, there were allegations of a massive cover-up, ostensibly led by Ryan, about the events leading up to Mitchell’s death. Ryan, incidentally, has been charged with second-degree assault and making a false statement to police and is scheduled to go to trial next month.

After two days of seemingly endless testimony, it was up to the jury to decide which version of the truth to believe. It was never at issue whether Canale swung the bat that killed Mitchell. What the jury had to decide was whether Canale swung the bat with malice and aforethought or if he wielded the bat in self-defense and struck and killed Mitchell accidentally. In the end, the jury returned guilty verdicts for manslaughter and second-degree assault, convictions which each carry maximum sentences of 10 years in jail.

“We started with each person saying what they thought actually happened that night,” one juror said later. “In the beginning, we were all across the board. Then, we went down the list and determined what charge the facts fit the best. There are certain criteria for each charge and our challenge was to find the charge that best represented those facts.”

Another juror said everybody agreed a young person was dead and the defendant swung the bat that killed him, but the sticking point for most was intent. First- and second-degree murder convictions rely on premeditation and intent, elements the jurors collectively believed were missing in this case.

“Everybody knew the severity of the circumstances and what was at stake,” the juror said. “We went on the facts and, for me, it came down to a few simple things. There definitely was no premeditation. That kid didn’t show up there that night intending to kill anybody.”

Another juror agreed, saying nothing presented in the way of facts suggested Canale brought the bat out of the trunk with the intent to kill Mitchell or anyone else.

“The problem was, the state wanted us to believe he chased him around with the bat,” the juror said. “But there was nothing presented in the way of evidence to show there was ever any intent to kill this kid. There was no evidence to make us believe that.”

For at least one juror, the fact Mitchell and not Ryan was the recipient of the deadly blow illustrated the lack of intent.

“According to the facts of the case, Canale was punched in the face four times by the same person, and it wasn’t the kid who ended up getting killed,” one juror said. “You would think if you had been punched in the face four times by the same person and you suddenly had a bat in your hand, the object of your anger would be the person that hit you several times in the face. Of course, that didn’t happen in this case.”

The jury had the option to clear Canale, particularly if they bought the self-defense argument. In the end, however, they agreed bringing out the bat and swinging it at a crowd crossed over from self-defense to manslaughter. One juror said the defendant swinging the bat that struck and killed Mitchell illustrated excessive force, which was fourth basic criterion for the manslaughter charge.

“That solved it for me,” the juror said. “Here’s a guy who has been punched in the face four times and is still standing. Suddenly he has a bat in his hand and swings it at a crowd, hitting and killing another kid. To me, more than necessary force was used. It all comes back to the issue of excessive force.”

The jurors heard hours of testimony during the two days of the trial, including that of a neighbor across the street whom heard the shouting associated with the fight and looked out to see what was going on. The witness said as quickly as the crowd had gathered, it scattered just as fast after the deadly blow. One juror said that testimony illustrated how quickly things had escalated and how quickly the combatants scattered when they realized something terrible had happened.

“For me, one of the key pieces of testimony came from the neighbor, who was awakened by the sounds of a fight in the street,” one juror said. “He said he heard the yelling and screaming and knew there was a fight going on, but in a flash, they dispersed. In a flash, they were all gone.”

Several of the jurors said they wrestled with the facts of the case and the grave responsibility they had in deciding Canale’s fate.

“I tossed and turned and didn’t sleep each night, especially the night before we were going to deliberate,” one juror said. “It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done. We had to fate of two families to decide.”

For others, the days of testimony about the tragedy still haunt them somewhat.

“I’ve not been able to get it out of my head yet,” another juror said. “We decided the fate of two families, and I’m confident we got it right, but I still can’t stop thinking about it. I only hope it goes away in time.”

All agreed it was a senseless tragedy that will not easily be forgotten in the otherwise quiet community.

“It’s a terrible tragedy,” one juror said. “I feel for the Mitchell family because they lost a son and will never get him back. I also feel for the Canale family somewhat because they’ve lost a son, although certainly not to the same degree, and their lives will probably never be the same either.”

The manslaughter and second-degree assault charges each carry maximum sentences of 10 years. Following the reading of the verdicts last Friday, Eschenberg deferred sentencing pending the outcome of a pre-sentence investigation. In the meantime, Canale remains in custody.