Life term for Li's murder

Friday, June 29, 2007

Life in prison is the first sentence handed down for one of two Hispanic men charged in the stabbing death of a local Chinese restaurant owner and carpenter.

"I believe in the United States justice system," Kevin Li said Wednesday after the sentencing of Jairo Jesus "Kevin" Canales-Garcia, 23, who with Daniel Caluo "Mohawk" Vasquez, 37, was charged with murdering Li's father, Wing Chiu Li, 57.

Life terms in Tennessee are 60 years, 51 if such a convict earns all possible credits for good behavior, attorneys have explained. The two men were also charged with aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery. Judge Robert Crigler set July 11 for another sentencing hearing to announce his conclusion on whether the law will allow him to "stack" more time on the life term.

The legal question Crigler has taken under advisement is whether those aggravating crimes are merged with the first degree- and felony murder charges. If so, additional time may not be possible because the crimes of burglary and robbery were already used to substantiate the gravity of the killing and require the life sentence.

Canales-Garcia's status as an illegal immigrant was presented by Assistant District Attorney Ann Filer as a "continuing crime" that could be used to justify another sentence that would be served consecutively. Furthermore, Canales-Garcia was a leader in the crime and while Li wasn't shot, Canales-Garcia had a gun and "It's fair to conclude that the gun was used to subdue him," Filer said.

Canales-Garcia sat silently, blinking his eyes while Kevin Li testified about what his father's murder did to the Li family. He and his relatives at the courthouse Wednesday said Wing Chiu Li's wife died of grief.

"She died because of this," Kevin Li testified. "I ask the judge, 'You must punish them.' They are not human. My oldest daughter asks why father left. He was in such good health… This has affected our lives and all our future."

Li's cheeks were wet with tears as he testified. He feels guilty because he was not with his father that day, according to his testimony repeated by an interpreter.

"My father was there alone," Li said. "There was nobody there to help him."

While driving his sister-in-law from Nashville's airport, he saw the open back door of the planned Peking Buffet near Wal-Mart, and realized his father's van was not in the parking lot. After taking his relative to his home, Li went to the shopping center where his father had been building the inside of a second restaurant for the family.

Wing Chiu Li's neck was slashed. He'd been stabbed several times. Statements in court indicate Canales-Garcia and Vasquez waited near the building until Li was alone. They allegedly went to collect a debt.

Canales-Garcia was convicted May 17 by a Marshall County jury on all counts, including theft of Li's van. His blood was found on the seats of the van, according to trial testimony to indicate the violent fight inside the shopping center, hidden when Canales-Garcia closed a door. His bloody fingerprints were found on the door.

Canales-Garcia claimed in his own defense that Vasquez told him to close the door and that a deadly fight escalated from an argument over money.

The men fled Lewisburg to Nashville where Canales-Garcia bought bus tickets to Georgia, according to statements in court. While waiting for the bus, they bought clothes to rid themselves of their bloody garments. After working in Georgia, they went to Minnesota from which they were extradited on assault charges that are pending.