The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the prison term of a Springfield man who went berserk after his sons' basketball team lost and began a beatdown of the opposing coach that ended with him biting part of the man's left ear off.
Timothy Forbes appealed his 3-4 year prison sentence in part because the state mayhem law, under which he was convicted, refers to a person who "cuts or tears off an ear" and he said he only chomped off a part of the opposing coach's ear - which he then spit out - and did not both "cut" and "tear" off the ear.
In the sort of formal legal language for which appellate courts are known, the justices basically asked what planet Forbes was from:
Simply put, we think that interpreting "an ear" as necessarily denoting an entire ear ascribes to the word "an" a mathematical precision that was never intended. "The maxim that penal statutes are to be strictly construed does not mean that an available and sensible interpretation is to be rejected in favor of a fanciful or perverse one." Commonwealth v. Roucoulet, 413 Mass. 647, 652 (1992), quoting from Commonwealth v. Tata, 28 Mass. App. Ct. 23, 25-26 (1989) (Kaplan, J.). Certainly, we would not hesitate to affirm a mayhem conviction, for instance, where the defendant had removed all but a tiny portion of the victim's ear. At least where, as here, the evidence shows that the defendant severed a substantial portion of the victim's ear, we conclude that a jury reasonably could have concluded that the defendant's actions amounted to "cut[ting] or tear[ing] off an ear."
Just to be sure, the justices looked to see how other jurisdictions have handled the ear issue - and they found concurring ear-biting citations from a 1970 Nevada case and an 1894 case in what was then the Republic of Hawaii.
The court did give Forbes a slight legal victory in overturning his conviction for assault and battery, as basically duplicating the more serious mayhem conviction. However, since the sentence for that offense was to run concurrently with the one for mayhem, he doesn't save any time in prison.