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Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Conviction in Vicious Jail Assault

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed an inmate’s conviction for slashing another inmate with a homemade weapon at the Norfolk County House of Correction in 2012.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Inoa

While in custody on December 20, 2012, the defendant approached another inmate from behind and cut his face with a razor that had been taped to a spoon.  The victim’s face was slashed from the lower right part of his chin to the back of his neck.  Staff members at the jail applied pressure to the eight-inch gash and gave oxygen to the victim until he was transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital.  When the victim arrived at the hospital, a plastic surgeon was summonsed to repair the wound because of its depth.  The surgeon needed more than thirty stitches to close the cut and the victim was told to follow up with the plastic surgery department.  The Commonwealth presented the case to the Norfolk County Grand Jury, which returned an indictment for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing a serious bodily injury.  A superior court jury found the defendant guilty and he appealed.

On appeal, the defendant was not challenging that he had committed an assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.  He contended, however, that the jury’s verdict was defective because it was not clear how it had defined the serious bodily injury.  In Massachusetts, serious bodily injury can be proven in three ways.  If the injury caused a permanent disfigurement; if the injury created an impairment or loss of a limb, organ, or bodily function; or if the injury created a substantial risk of death, then it qualifies as a serious bodily injury.  In this case, the trial judge instructed the jurors that they could convict the defendant based on any of these three definitions, but the verdict slip did not specify which of the three definitions the jurors adopted.  The defendant argued that unless the evidence was sufficient to prove all three theories beyond a reasonable doubt, his conviction cannot stand (because some of the jurors might have believed the permanent disfigurement theory while other jurors might have believed the impairment theory, which means there may not have been a unanimous verdict on the Commonwealth’s theory of the case).  The defendant’s argument has merit – the general rule in Massachusetts is that when a jury returns a general verdict on a case where there are multiple theories of guilt, the defendant is entitled to a new trial if the evidence doesn’t support every theory of guilt.  In this case, the evidence satisfies the permanent disfigurement theory and it might satisfy the impairment theory, but it does not satisfy the substantial risk of death theory.  But the Appeals Court concluded that the defendant’s argument would succeed only of the different theories of prosecution were separate and distinct.  If the theories were related ways of proving the same legal concept, then the general verdict could stand.  The Court held that the elements of the crime required the defendant to commit a touching on another person with a dangerous weapon, that was unjustified, and that caused serious bodily injury.  The serious bodily injury element simply allows for the enhanced penalty to be imposed. Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction was affirmed.

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