Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Case Number: SJC-12277
Judge: Ralph Gants
Court: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Plaintiff's Attorney: Elianna J. Nuzum, Special Assistant District Attorney
Benjamin L. Falkner
Description: The following facts are taken from the
testimony presented to the grand jury. In August, 2015, when
the juvenile was fourteen years old, he tortured a friend's dog
by shoving a soap dispenser pump into the dog's vagina,
1 Unlike a delinquent child, who is subject to rehabilitative penalties and remedies, a "youthful offender" is subject to penalties that may include an adult sentence in the State prison. Commonwealth v. Mogelinski, 466 Mass. 627, 641 (2013), citing Commonwealth v. Connor C., 432 Mass. 635, 645 (2000). 2 We use "animal" as a shorthand reference for "nonhuman animal."
3 We acknowledge the amicus briefs submitted by the District Attorney for the Norfolk District, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Juvenile Law Center and Juvenile Defender Clinic of Suffolk University Law School.
resulting in serious internal injuries to the dog.4
A grand jury returned two youthful offender indictments
against the juvenile, charging him with cruelty to animals and
bestiality. See G. L. c. 272, §§ 34, 77. A Juvenile Court
judge allowed the juvenile's motion to dismiss, concluding that
the phrase "serious bodily harm" in the youthful offender
statute refers only to human victims. The Commonwealth
appealed, and we transferred the case to this court on our own
Discussion. A juvenile may be tried as a youthful offender
when the following criteria are met:
"[the] person is alleged to have committed an offense . . . while between the ages of fourteen and [eighteen] which, if he were an adult, would be punishable by imprisonment in the [S]tate prison, and the person has previously been committed to the [D]epartment of [Y]outh [S]ervices, or the offense involves the infliction or threat of serious bodily harm."
G. L. c. 119, § 54. Here, because the juvenile was between
fourteen and eighteen years old at the time of the offense, the
offense is punishable by imprisonment in State prison, and the
juvenile has not been committed previously to the Department of
Youth Services, the juvenile may be tried as a youthful offender
only if the offense involved serious bodily harm or, more
precisely, if the Legislature intended that the phrase "serious
4 The dog underwent surgery and survived.
bodily harm" apply to animal as well as human victims.
Whether the scope of the phrase "serious bodily harm"
encompasses harm to animals is a question of statutory
interpretation requiring de novo review. Commonwealth v.
Martin, 476 Mass. 72, 75 (2016). To determine the Legislature's
intent, we look to the words of the statute, "construed by the
ordinary and approved usage of the language, considered in
connection with the cause of its enactment, the mischief or
imperfection to be remedied and the main object to be
accomplished." Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n, Inc. v. Boston,
435 Mass. 718, 720 (2002), quoting O'Brien v. Director of the
Div. of Employment Sec., 393 Mass. 482, 487-488 (1984).
By its terms, the statute neither expressly includes nor
excludes serious bodily harm to animals. To determine whether
the statute is properly interpreted to apply to both animals and
humans, a canvassing of statutes specifically prohibiting harm
to animals is instructive, as is a review of other statutes
generally prohibiting bodily harm or injury. See, e.g.,
Commonwealth v. Smith, 431 Mass. 417, 420 (2000) (explaining
canon of in pari materia, i.e., looking to statutes of similar
1. Animal protection statutes. When the Legislature
intends a statute to protect animals, it does so directly and
unambiguously. For example, it is a crime to "kill, maim or
disfigure any horse, cattle or other animal of another person."
G. L. c. 266, § 112. It is also a crime to "overwork,
torture, . . . or kill an animal." G. L. c. 272, § 77. The
Legislature has further criminalized "exhibit[ing] . . . any
wild animal" for "amusement," G. L. c. 272, § 77B, and
"surgical[ly] devocaliz[ing] . . . a dog or cat," G. L. c. 272,
§ 80 1/2 (b). The Legislature has also created tort liability
of a person who "kills, maims, entices or carries away a dog or
other domesticated animal or bird," G. L. c. 272, § 85A, or who
"steals or attacks [an] assistance animal," G. L. c. 272,
§ 85B(a). The Commonwealth has not pointed to any Massachusetts
statute, and we have not found any in our review, that has ever
been interpreted to cover animals where the statutory language
did not include the word "animal" or a specific type of animal.
Had the Legislature intended the general criminal statutes to
protect animals, it need not have enacted animal cruelty laws at
all. Compare G. L. c. 265, §§ 1, 13 (murder and manslaughter),
with G. L. c. 266, § 112 (killing of domestic "animal[s]").5
5 The Commonwealth relies upon Commonwealth v. Duncan, 467 Mass. 746, 751-752, cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 224 (2014), for the proposition that this court recognizes animal protection as a strong public policy interest. In Duncan, we upheld as lawful a warrantless search for the purpose of aiding an animal. Id. at 753. Although we referenced animal cruelty statutes and highlighted the public policy of promoting the humane treatment of animals, Duncan involved the extension of our common law, not statutory interpretation. See id. at 752 (discussing cases
2. "Serious bodily harm" in context. By and large the
statutes that prohibit the infliction of serious bodily injury
apply only to human beings.6 See, e.g., G. L. c. 265, § 13J
(injury to child); G. L. c. 265, § 13K (injury to elderly
person); G. L. c. 265, § 13L (injury to child); G. L. c. 265,
§ 15A (injury to person by means of dangerous weapon); G. L.
c. 265, § 15D (injury to person by strangulation); G. L. c. 265,
§ 40 (injury to physical exercise program participant).
Notably, the only place where the term "bodily injury" is
used specifically to refer to both humans and animals is in the
statute that provides for restraining orders to protect a person
or a member of his or her family or household, including
"domesticated animal[s]." G. L. c. 209A, § 11. This lone
example demonstrates again that when the Legislature intends to
include animals as victims in a statute, it does so expressly.
Thus, based on a review of statutes prohibiting harm to
animals and those prohibiting harm generally, we conclude that
the Legislature did not intend the "serious bodily harm"
language in the youthful offender statute to apply to animal
developing emergency aid exception).
6 We use "serious bodily harm" and "serious bodily injury" interchangeably. See, e.g., Felix F. v. Commonwealth, 471 Mass. 513, 517 (2015); Commonwealth v. Pike, 428 Mass. 393, 396 (1998); Commonwealth v. Cataldo, 423 Mass. 318, 323 (1996).
3. Legislative history. The Commonwealth argues that the
legislative history of the youthful offender statute militates
in favor of interpreting the statute broadly to encompass
serious bodily harm to animals. However, we conclude that the
legislative history further supports our more narrow reading of
the statute. See Quincy City Hosp. v. Rate Setting Comm'n, 406
Mass. 431, 443 (1990) ("Statutes are to be interpreted . . . in
connection with their development and history, and with the
history of the times and prior legislation").
The concept of trying juveniles as adults in certain
circumstances goes back as far as the Nineteenth Century. See,
e.g., Pub. St. 1881, c. 155, § 49. The phrase "serious bodily
harm" first appeared in the 1975 amendments to what is now known
as the youthful offender statute. St. 1975, c. 840, § 1,
amending G. L. c. 119, § 61. The language was included, along
with the other familiar criteria that still exist today, to
limit the number of juveniles being tried as adults. Until that
time, it was within the discretion of a trial judge to determine
whether transfer to adult court was in the public interest.
G. L. (Ter. Ed.) c. 119, § 61.
The current incarnation of the youthful offender statute,
enacted in 1996, made comprehensive changes in the
Commonwealth's juvenile law to "address growing concern about
violent crimes committed by juveniles." Doe v. Attorney Gen.
(No. 1), 425 Mass. 210, 213 n.8 (1997). Although, among other
things, the 1996 amendments, codified as G. L. c. 119, § 54,
eliminated juvenile transfer hearings and automatically required
juveniles over the age of fourteen who were charged with
committing murder in the first or second degree to be tried as
adults, the amendments did not alter the "serious bodily harm"
language. See St. 1996, c. 200, §§ 2, 15. Compare St. 1996,
c. 200, § 2, with St. 1975, c. 840, § 1.
The impetus for the 1996 amendment had nothing to do with
harm to animals; instead it was sparked by the murder of a woman
by a then thirteen year old juvenile. See Roundup, State House
News Service, Mar. 14, 1996. The legislative history of the
youthful offender statute does not support the Commonwealth's
view that "serious bodily harm" includes harm to animals.7
Conclusion. We do not discount the seriousness of the
extremely disturbing allegations against the juvenile; they
raise grave concerns about the juvenile's mental health. Nor do
7 The Commonwealth points to the Legislature's rejection of a proposed amendment limiting the statute to crimes involving violations of G. L. c. 265, titled "Crimes Against the Person," as proof that it intended the statute to protect animals from serious bodily harm. The failure to adopt an amendment intended to limit the types of crimes qualifying under the youthful offender statute does not demonstrate that the Legislature intended for the phrase "serious bodily harm" to extend to animal victims. See Franklin v. Albert, 381 Mass. 611, 615-616 (1980) (stressing fallacy in attributing particular motivation to rejection of legislative measure).
we wish to downplay the suffering the dog went through during
and after the attack. Nevertheless, "[o]ur primary duty in
interpreting a statute is 'to effectuate the intent of the
Legislature in enacting it.'" Sheehan v. Weaver, 467 Mass. 734,
737 (2014), quoting Water Dep't of Fairhaven v. Department of
Envtl. Protection, 455 Mass. 740, 744 (2010). Here, for the
reasons discussed supra, we conclude that the "serious bodily
harm" referenced in the statute does not apply to animals.
Therefore, the juvenile's conduct does not meet the requirements
of the statute.
Although the juvenile will not be treated as an adult and
face criminal penalties, the Commonwealth certainly may proceed
by way of a complaint for delinquency in the Juvenile Court,
where the flexibility to order mental health treatment exists.
See Commonwealth v. Hanson H., 464 Mass. 807, 808 (2013) (noting
Juvenile Court's broad "discretion . . . to render
For the foregoing reasons, we affirm the order granting the
juvenile's motion to dismiss.
CYPHER, J. (concurring). A dog was horrifically tortured,
and because her torturer was a teenager, the Commonwealth had
limited recourse. I agree with the court that bodily harm to
animals does not fall within the purview of the youthful
offender statute as drafted. I write separately to highlight
the Legislature's ability to amend the youthful offender statute
or promulgate other legislation to better protect animals and
Preventing animal cruelty is a tenet of our collective
humanity and a crucial public policy goal in Massachusetts. See
Commonwealth v. Duncan, 467 Mass. 746, 751, cert. denied, 135 S.
Ct. 224 (2014) ("Our statutes evince a focus on the prevention
of both intentional and neglectful animal cruelty").1 The
Commonwealth also has a strong interest in identifying young
people with violent tendencies and in preventing additional
Not only is preventing animal cruelty and abuse an
important public policy goal for the sake of the animals, but
1 The Legislature is considering many animal care and protection bills, indicating that this continues to be a concern to the citizens of the Commonwealth. See, e.g., House Bill No. 852 (establishing animal abuse registry); Senate Bill No. 2165 (permitting damages when assistance animal is harmed or killed); House Bill No. 2290 (providing for imprisonment and fines for those who leave pet outside during extreme weather); Senate Bill No. 1155 (forbidding pet shops from selling dogs or cats purchased from breeder that is not in compliance with breeder licensure requirements).
the link between juvenile animal cruelty and abuse and later
adulthood violence is well established as well.2 See Department
of Correction, Childhood Animal Abuse and Violent Criminal
Behavior: A Brief Review of the Literature (Oct. 2011),
[https://perma.cc/YGY2-7K7L]; Hensley, Browne, and Trentham,
Exploring the Social and Emotional Context of Childhood Animal
Cruelty and Its Potential Link to Adult Human Violence,
Psychology, Crime & Law (2017) ("Existing research has
repeatedly shown animal cruelty to be a predictor of adult
interpersonal violence"); Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal
Cruelty's Link to Other Forms of Community Violence (2011),
.cc/4YF6-LV7H] ("If a child exhibits aggressive or sexualized
behavior toward animals it may be associated with later abuse of 2 In a time when social science is rapidly evolving, the Legislature is in a better position than a court to act on advances in social science research. See, e.g., Deputy Chief Counsel for the Pub. Defender Div. of the Comm. for Pub. Counsel Servs. v. Acting First Justice of the Lowell Div. of the Dist. Court Dep't, 477 Mass. 178, 187 (2017) (noting that while social science may support change to statute at issue, it is nonetheless court's responsibility to enforce statutes as written by Legislature). Courts are tasked with resolving particular disputes among parties and must limit rulings to those narrow issues, whereas the Legislature can more readily address most ills. See Guzman v. MRM/Elgin, 409 Mass. 563, 570 (1991) ("These are issues of broad public policy involving balancing the interests of future plaintiffs and defendants, which the Legislature is better equipped to resolve").
humans, unless the behavior is recognized and stopped").
A juvenile who intentionally harms an animal displays a
concerning propensity for viciousness. If the Commonwealth can
respond to juvenile animal abuse effectively, it may help spare
future victims, animal and human alike.
The youthful offender statute, if amended, can provide the
Commonwealth more flexibility when dealing with such disquieting
cases of animal cruelty. Prosecutors then may be able to enlist
the comprehensive assistance of the criminal justice system in
addressing allegations of animal cruelty that may be harbingers
of violence to come.
Outcome: Although there may be other avenues available to the
Commonwealth, the youthful offender statute could have been the
most appropriate response. If the Legislature wishes to empower
prosecutors to respond to similar acts of animal brutality, it
may expand the reach of the youthful offender statute and other
statutes proscribing violence to better address animal abuse and
cruelty in the Commonwealth.