The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday reversed a superior court judge’s decision to dismiss some charges related to a bar fight at a restaurant in Plymouth that left the victim with serious injuries to his head. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Johnson.
In October of 2015, three men in their 20s (the soon-to-be defendants) were partying at the Waterfront Bar & Grille in Plymouth. They had been drinking heavily at a work event prior to their arrival. The restaurant was crowded and an altercation occurred when the 52-year-old victim attempted to shuffle past one of the defendants. The victim placed his hand on the defendant’s back as he tried to walk by and the defendant allegedly responded by sticking out his leg to trip the victim. According to testimony presented before the grand jury, words were then exchanged as the defendants challenged the victim to fight. The victim began moving away when the lead defendant, Alexander Johnson, allegedly slammed a pint glass into the victim’s head. The glass shattered and sliced the victim’s head open, resulting in extensive lacerations. The defendant began bleeding heavily and it took approximately 40 stitches to close the wounds. The victim testified to the grand jurors that the glass also dented his head and he sustained a concussion. The aftereffects of the concussion included vision problems, headaches, dizziness, and motor impairment. Defendant Johnson was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury (ABDW-SBI). He filed a motion to dismiss so much of the indictment that alleged he caused a serious bodily injury, arguing that the evidence presented to the grand jury was insufficient. A superior court judge agreed and dismissed the SBI portion of the indictment. The Appeals Court reversed.
“Serious bodily injury” is defined as a bodily injury that causes: loss or impairment of a bodily function, limb, or organ; substantial risk of death; or permanent disfigurement. The Appeals Court concluded that the grand jury could have found probable cause (which is the standard of proof at a grand jury proceeding) to establish each of the elements of SBI. The victim’s vision problems could have constituted loss or impairment of a bodily function; the victim’s significant blood loss could have caused a substantial risk of death; and the victim’s scar on his head could have constituted permanent disfigurement. The superior court judge who allowed the motion to dismiss the SBI element reasoned that the victim’s medical records presented to the grand jury were largely inconsistent with his testimony. For example, the victim testified that he had sustained a fractured skull from the attack, but his medical records revealed that no such fracture occurred. The victim also testified he was in danger of “bleeding out” from a severed artery, but the medical records were also not supportive of this claim. Nevertheless, the Appeals Court ruled the superior court judge had improperly evaluated the evidence where a finding of only probable cause was necessary. When the case goes to trial, of course, the trial jury might find the Commonwealth cannot prove the existence of a serious bodily injury (particularly when the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt).
The case will now return to superior court where the defendants will either plead guilty or go to trial before a 12-person jury or a judge.