Teenagers cannot be prosecuted as adults when they physically assault animals because the legal term “bodily injury” only applies to human beings, the state’s highest court ruled Monday.
The Supreme Judicial Court ordered the dismissal of animal cruelty and bestiality charges filed against a 14-year-old boy who “tortured a friend’s dog” forcing a soap dispenser into the animal’s body, causing “serious internal injuries to the dog.”
Prosecutors, who could have kept the case in Juvenile Court, instead decided to indict the unnamed teen as a youthful offender who could face adult prison upon conviction, a move they took because the animal suffered “serious bodily harm’’ under existing juvenile law.
But a unanimous SJC ruled Monday that the Legislature did not explicitly include animals in 1996 when they created the youthful offender process for teenagers accused of committing crimes of violence such as shooting, stabbings, or sexual assaults.
“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 we wish to downplay the suffering the dog went through during and after the attack,’’ Justice Kimberly S. Budd wrote.
But, the court’s responsibility is to interpret laws so they can achieve the goal lawmakers had in mind when they adopted the measure, Budd wrote.
“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,’’ Budd wrote. “We conclude that the ‘serious bodily harm’ referenced in the statute does not apply to animals. “
She noted the Legislature has always explicitly mentioned animals in laws meant to protect them.
“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],’ ” Budd wrote. “This lone example demonstrates again that when the Legislature intends to include animals as victims in a statute, it does so expressly.”
The court found that prosecutors can still try the teenager in Juvenile Court, where the judge could fashion a sentence that takes into account what the SJC believes is a mentally troubled child.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Elspeth B. Cypher urged Beacon Hill lawmakers to update the law books and make it clear that teenagers can face trial and sentence as an adult when they victimize animals.
“Preventing animal cruelty is a tenet of our collective humanity and a crucial public policy goal in Massachusetts,’’ she wrote. “The Commonwealth also has a strong interest in identifying young people with violent tendencies and in preventing additional violence.”
Such a change can protect animals — and society as a whole, she wrote.
“A juvenile who intentionally harms an animal displays a concerning propensity for viciousness,’’ she wrote. “If the Commonwealth can respond to juvenile animal abuse effectively, it may help spare future victims, animal and human alike.”
Cypher said the youthful offender statute, if broadened, “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.”
David Rosengard, a staff attorney with criminal justice program of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which filed an amicus brief in the case, said by phone that the group was “very heartened” by Cypher’s call for the Legislature to change the law.
Rosengard said the link between animal cruelty and violence against humans is becoming increasingly clear, and that the SJC case is playing out amid a larger debate over “the extent to which animals really qualify legally as victims of crimes.”
“They’re living creatures,” Rosengard said. “We know this, but the law has not always caught up to those commonsense notions.” He described animals as “feeling, thinking, sentient creatures that experience pain” when they’re tortured.
The MSPCA also weighed in, voicing support for Cypher’s opinion.
“We believe that people—of any age—should be held accountable for their actions, including violent crimes against animals,” the group said in a statement. “We agree with Judge Cypher who said in the ruling that this dog was ‘horrifically tortured,’ and we support the amending of the youthful offender statute to ensure anyone who harms animals is met with justice, regardless of age.”
Monday’s ruling comes after Norfolk County prosecutors announced earlier this month that another closely watched animal cruelty trial, dubbed the Puppy Doe case, is scheduled to begin in March after repeated delays.
In that matter, Radoslaw Artur Czerkawski, 36, is accused of inflicting abuse on a pit bull that authorities eventually learned had been named Kiya. The dog suffered broken bones, burns, dislocated joints, a split tongue, a stabbed eye, and complications from starvation before it had to be euthanized.John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.