A Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge on Nov. 28, sentenced the boyfriend of gay former D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Antonio Barnes, 27, to six years in prison for the March 14 stabbing that led to Barnes’ death in what prosecutors have called an act of domestic violence that they don’t believe was intended to kill Barnes.
With grieving family members of both men looking on, Judge Michael Pearson sentenced Canaan Jeremiah Peterson, 24, to the maximum sentence of 25 years for a single charge of first-degree assault, but suspended all but six years of the time to be served in prison.
Pearson also sentenced Peterson to five years of supervised probation upon his release from prison. The judge said he would subtract from the six-year prison term the eight months and two weeks that Peterson has spent in jail since the time of his arrest on April 13.
Under Maryland law, Peterson could be ordered to serve the full 25-year sentence if he violates the terms of his probation upon release by getting arrested again.
The sentencing came after Assistant P.G. County State’s Attorney Jonathan Church, the lead prosecutor in the case, stated that a plea agreement had been reached in October in which Peterson pled guilty to a single count of first-degree assault in exchange for prosecutors dropping four additional charges
The dropped charges included two counts of Involuntary Manslaughter, one count of Common Law Involuntary Manslaughter/Unlawful Act, and one count of Wear and Carry a Dangerous Weapon with Intent to Injure.
Shortly after Peterson’s arrest in April prosecutors dropped a charge of first-degree murder with which Prince George’s County police initially charged Peterson. A spokesperson for the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office said the decision to drop the murder charge was based on evidence that Peterson stabbed Barnes in the upper leg, while the two were fighting, which severed an artery that caused Barnes to bleed to death.
The spokesperson, John Erzen, told the Washington Blade that prosecutors didn’t believe the evidence supported a first-degree murder charge, among other things, because Peterson and Barnes were in a relationship and it would be difficult to prove to a jury that Peterson intended to kill Barnes.
Peterson told police and his family members that the stabbing, which took place outside Barnes’ mother’s home in Hyattsville, Md., where Barnes was living at the time, was an accident that happened while the two men were fighting.
Barnes’ mother, Alethea Barnes, and his sister, Destiny Barnes, appeared to disagree strongly with the plea agreement when they spoke at the sentencing hearing to provide their recommendation to the judge as part of a victim impact statement. Both asked Pearson to sentence Peterson to serve the full 25-year maximum sentence for the first-degree assault charge.
“My son did not deserve this,” Alethea Barnes told Pearson. “It shouldn’t have happened this way,” she said. “I’m requesting the maximum sentence so this can’t happen again to someone else.”
Destiny Barnes told the court her family tried to help Peterson and showed him support and respect, making it especially devastating that his behavior would lead to her brother’s death.
“On March 14, my brother died alone that day,” she said. “Nobody reached out to our family.”
Also speaking at the hearing was Sharron Peterson, Canaan Peterson’s mother. She apologized to Barnes’ family members for what she called an “accident” that led to Barnes’ death.
“Canaan had some issues,” she said. “I had him go to a psychiatrist. He had depression and he was self-medicating with alcohol,” she told the court. “He and Antonio loved each other. A lot of the things that went on were due to self-medication with alcohol.”
A man who identified himself as Steven and said he was Peterson’s cousin told the judge he and the Peterson family do not believe Peterson is a murderer.
“This wasn’t a hate crime,” he said. “It was more a mental health problem. The actual reason why this took place has not been dealt with,” he said, adding, “They both drank before this took place. Intoxication and mental health is the root cause of this problem.”
Steven’s claim that both men had been drinking on the day of the fatal stabbing and the drinking was a factor in what happened prompted Destiny Barnes to shout from her seat in the courtroom, “That is not true. That’s a lie.”
When she continued to shout her disagreement with Steven’s statement as Judge Pearson called on her to remain silent a guard escorted Destiny Barnes out of the courtroom.
After the family members spoke and before handing down his sentence Pearson said there appeared to be confusion among some family members about the plea agreement. He noted that the agreement included the request for a sentence of 25 years with all but six years to be suspended.
“What I can speak to is the parties came to me and presented an agreement for the defendant to be sentenced to serve six years,” he said. “Under this agreement the most I can give is six years.”
Pearson also pointed out that he received letters from people who knew Barnes and who requested that he hand down the maximum sentence of 25 years for Peterson, something he said he could not do.
Among those who wrote a letter to Pearson was gay Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alex Padro, who served with Barnes during the two years that Barnes himself was an elected member of ANC 6E, which represents parts of the city’s Shaw and Sursum Corda neighborhoods.
“With his honest, friendly and endearing manner, Antonio Barnes was welcome and embraced” by those in the community who knew him, Padro states in his letter. “His work ethic was admired by all who experienced it. His loyalty and love of family were uncompromising,” Padro says in his letter.
“Out of all the challenges that Antonio Barnes faced and overcame in his short life, no one would have thought that his end would come at the hands of someone he loved and who claimed to love him,” the letter continues. “For what he stole from Antonio Barnes, from his family, from his friends and colleagues, myself included, from our community, and from the world, Canaan Jeremiah Peterson deserves to be incarcerated for 25 years, the longest sentence you are able to impose.”
What wasn’t mentioned at the sentencing hearing was Barnes’ decision about six months before his death to decline to cooperate with prosecutors in Baltimore after Peterson was arrested on multiple assault charges for attacking Barnes with a knife at Peterson’s mother’s home in Baltimore, where he was living at the time.
Police and court records in Baltimore show that in August 2017 Baltimore police arrested Peterson on nine assault-related charges as well as a destruction of property charge for allegedly attacking Barnes and Peterson’s mother with a knife. A Baltimore police charging document says the attack took place when Peterson appeared to be in a fit of rage in which he ransacked the house “on all three floors.”
A police report says Barnes received a superficial cut from the attack before he was able to subdue Peterson.
In a development that experts on domestic violence say is not uncommon, both Barnes and Peterson’s mother, who was also assaulted by her son during the attack, refused to cooperate with prosecutors, resulting in prosecutors dropping the charges.
Erzen, the spokesperson for the P.G. County prosecutors’ office, said Assistant State’s Attorney Church met with Barnes’ family members, including his mother and sister, in the courthouse after the sentencing hearing to clear up what appeared to be confusion over the plea agreement.
“We met with the family four times prior to the plea and did not offer a plea until they heard it and agreed with it,” Erzen told the Blade.
Alethea Barnes declined to comment when asked at the courthouse following the sentencing about her understanding of the plea agreement.