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‘Serious Bodily Harm’ Does Not Include Animals, Massachusetts Supreme Court Holds

by Dale Chappell

The term “serious bodily harm” does not include harm to animals, unless the statute expressly says so, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held, tossing out a youthful offender indictment.

After a 14-year-old juvenile tortured a dog, the Commonwealth indicted him as a youthful offender for cruelty to animals and bestiality under G.L.c. 272, §§ 34, 77. The juvenile court granted the juvenile’s motion to dismiss the indictment because the term serious bodily harm in the youthful offender statute does not include animals. The Commonwealth appealed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Court took the case sua sponte from the Court of Appeals.

A juvenile may be tried as a youthful offender, which includes adult prison time, if the crime would have included prison if he were an adult and he was previously committed under youth services, or if the crime involved serious bodily harm, the Court explained. The question here was whether the term “serious bodily harm” applies only to humans.

Canvassing the Commonwealth’s statutes, the Court concluded that the Legislature expressly included the term “animals” when it wanted the statute to cover or apply to animals. In fact, the Legislature has done so “directly and unambiguously,” the Court noted, listing several statutes criminalizing animal abuse. “Had the Legislature intended the general criminal statutes to protect animals, it need not have enacted animal cruelty laws at all,” the Court said.

The term “serious bodily harm” was put in the youthful offender statute “to limit the number of juveniles being treated as adults,” the Court noted. Until then, it was up to the judge whether a juvenile could be tried as an adult. Based on legislative intent, the youthful offender statute’s “serious bodily harm” applies only to humans, the Court held, affirming dismissal of the indictment.

Accordingly, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts affirmed the order granting the juvenile’s motion to dismiss. See: Commonwealth v. J.A., a juvenile, 85 N.E.3d 684 (Mass. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Commonwealth v. J.A., a juvenile



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