Death Row Inmate Fights to Have His Childhood Abuse Considered by a Jury

Content warning: sexual assault, violence

Almost every person on Death Row grew up neglected and surrounded by violence. In many cases, their court-appointed attorneys didn’t present their childhood histories to the juries determining their fate. Texas prosecutors and judges have often worked to keep these stories from being heard. They know if jurors feel sympathy for the defendants they might sentence them to life in prison instead of death.

Such is the case of Anibal Canales Jr., whose March 29 execution for his role in the gang-related murder of inmate Larry Dickerson at a prison in North Texas in 1997 has been postponed until the fall. Jurors at Canales’ trial were told about his prior convictions for sexual assault. They heard nothing about what Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor described as “the unspeakable, unrelenting cruelties Canales witnessed and suffered at the hands of those closest to him,” after the court refused to take up his case.

The facts of Canales’ childhood were brought to light 15 years after he was sent to Death Row. State and federal judges learned that he had been physically and sexually abused throughout his formative years. At the age of 6, Canales tried to protect his 5-year-old sister as his stepfather, Carlos Espinoza, raped her. Espinoza abused Canales as well. “Espinoza regularly beat Canales, stripping him naked, dragging him by the ears, and then whipping him with a belt,” Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in 2020. “Canales’ sister recalled: ‘I remember seeing Andy lying naked, curled up in a ball, and Carlos hitting him as hard as he could with the buckle end of the belt. Carlos would beat Andy until he had welts and bruises all over his body.’”

Canales experienced violence outside the home as well; at age 8, he was forced to enter a gang. At 10, gang members shot at him. At 12, he was stabbed. By 14, he was an alcoholic and, later, a heroin addict.

Canales has argued that his trial attorneys were ineffective for not presenting this evidence during the sentencing phase of his trial. He has sought to be resentenced, but various judges of various courts have refused to let that happen. The most recent rejection came in 2020, when the conservative 5CA ruled that the new evidence of Canales’ violent childhood would not have persuaded even one of the jurors at his trial to give him life in prison rather than death.

There were judges who disagreed, however. Judge Higginbotham wrote that he believed the evidence could have caused a juror to switch their vote and that, in any case, a jury, not a judge, should make that decision. Sotomayor used the same analysis in decrying her court’s refusal to take up Canales’ case months later. “If the jurors had a richer understanding of the man before them, there is a more than reasonable probability that at least one would have found a lifetime in prison to suffice,” Sotomayor wrote. “Canales has been denied his right to put that evidence before the jury, first by ineffective counsel and now by the courts.”

Sotomayor also wrote that, before deciding to kill a human being for a crime, juries should get a sense of the defendant as “a full and unique individual.” The death penalty being what it is, usually only those closest to the defendant have this understanding. Canales’ sister, Elizabeth – whom he tried to protect as a child – could have helped a jury to know him better, had the judges allowed it. “Andy was a throw-away child,” she said. “If only my parents would have given Andy a little more attention, he could have grown up to have a family and a good life. He was always brave when I needed him to be. I will forever be grateful for that.”

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