Deborah Canales blew a kiss to her son on Friday as he walked into the courtroom in red prison garb, cuffed and shackled, his face and head covered in what prosecutors said were gang-related tattoos he obtained in prison since he shot her in the back and killed his father and brother.
“I love you honey, with all my heart!” Deborah Canales said.
Convicted murder Emilio Christopher Canales Jr. nodded toward her and offered occasional smiles and winks in her direction. Even though her son shot her and killed her ex-husband and another son, Deborah Canales told Whitfield County Superior Court Judge William T. Boyett that she wants him to have a chance of getting out of prison.
She spoke during a post-sentencing hearing before Boyett to decide whether Christopher Canales should be sentenced to life in prison with parole or life without parole for the shooting deaths of her ex-husband, Emilio Canales Sr., and son Francisco Canales, as well as for shooting her at their home at 1011 Dude St. in Dalton in April 2012.
“Christopher is a good kid, really. Christopher is a good son, you know what I’m saying?” Deborah Canales said as District Attorney Bert Poston questioned her. “... I’d just like for my son to come home.”
Boyett listened to about two-and-a-half hours of testimony and arguments and said he would read additional evidence that Poston and Public Defender Mike McCarthy offered before deciding on a final sentence.
Boyett sentenced Canales to life in prison without parole in early July, but Canales had planned to go to trial and unexpectedly entered a guilty plea, so officials set up a hearing for Boyett to decide whether to lessen the sentence to allow the parole board to consider releasing Canales in 30 years. Canales is almost 29 years old.
Deborah Canales said her ex-husband physically abused her and verbally belittled and humiliated Christopher Canales for years.
Poston noted prosecutors wanted to pursue the death penalty, but family members of Canales Sr. preferred the plea deal Christopher Canales agreed to, which spares them the rigors of a trial. Had Deborah Canales been killed too, prosecutors would have asked for the death penalty anyhow, Poston said.
Christopher Canales shook his head from side to side as Poston offered a view of what he believes happened, based on evidence officers from the Dalton Police Department and Georgia Bureau of Investigation uncovered:
That Christopher likely ambushed his father in the back bedroom where Canales Sr. was found face-down with shots to his head and back. Francisco Canales probably heard the shots and was coming to his father’s aid when he saw the gun and turned around, Poston said, and Christopher likely chased Francisco, who was shot twice and found face-down near the front door.
“Killed him dead, cold blood, both of these cold-blooded murder,” Poston said. “The court can look at the evidence as we have and conclude that there is malice here.”
Poston said Christopher Canales then pursued his mother out of the house, but she escaped being killed and ran to a neighbor’s home for help.
Christopher Canales wasn’t charged with malice murder though, that is, murder with pre-meditated intent, but Poston asked the judge to consider the facts in his sentencing ruling.
McCarthy, who is representing Christopher Canales, asked the judge to show some consideration for the circumstances of the case. He said Canales’ father was physically violent toward Christopher’s mother while he was growing up, and he verbally and emotionally abused Christopher for years.
“I don’t know that you can calculate what effect that has on a young person growing up, to witness that kind of violence and abuse over and over,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy did not detail exactly what happened the day of the murders, and Christopher Canales didn’t take the witness stand. Asked after court adjourned for more detail, McCarthy said he needed to wait for the judge’s ruling and consult with his client to see if he wanted to release additional information.
McCarthy had planned to call Deborah Canales to the stand as well as a couple of more family members, but he said his client decided before that happened not to ask them to testify. After that announcement, Poston then called Deborah Canales to the stand. When he began questioning her, she said she wanted to plead the Fifth Amendment, which provides that individuals are not required to testify against themselves.
Boyett told her the Fifth Amendment didn’t apply and to answer the questions, which she did. She said her ex-husband drank often, and was a “very violent-type person.” Records show that in May 1996, when Christopher was 11, Canales Sr. assaulted her. When Christopher was older, Canales Sr. assaulted him, too, records show.
“I would submit that these events (the shootings) did not occur in a vacuum,” McCarthy said, “that Christopher didn’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I think I’ll shoot my father, my brother and my mother.’”
Court records show Christopher Canales pressed charges against his father after one assault, but prosecutors dropped the case after Christopher left the state and didn’t come back to testify. Christopher has previous convictions for gang-related activity involving firing a weapon in at least one other case.
People though, can turn their lives around, McCarthy said, and that opportunity is what the defense is asking for. In Christopher Canales’ case, Poston said, the tattoos on his face and head — many of them numbers with specific meanings related to a Mexican gang — make clear the kind of future he wants should he be released.
“I think that says a lot about his state of mind,” Poston said. “If he is ever released on parole, he is a danger.”