Commonwealth v. Shea

Brian Rice

CASE CITATION: Commonwealth v. Shea, 38 Mass. App. Ct. 7 (1995).

PARTIES: John J. Shea Common, Appellant

Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Appellee

FACTS: On the afternoon of June 15, 1991, John J. Shea, along with his friend and two female guests were out to sea on Mr. Shea’s boat.  The boat was about five miles off the Boston shore when Mr. Shea stopped the boat. He proceeded to disrobe and make sexual remarks and advances toward the two women. The women asked him to put on his clothes and stop his offensive behavior. Mr. Shea ignored those requests. The women then demanded that he return them to shore. Mr. Shea responded by throwing the women into the ocean and left the area without looking back at the women. The women swam to within shouting distance of a sailboat and were rescued. 

At trial, as to both women, Mr. Shea was found guilty of kidnapping, attempted murder, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon (the ocean), and indecent assault and battery.  Mr. Shea filed an appeal arguing (amongst other arguments) that the judge was in error when he denied a motion for required findings of not guilty on all of the indictments. Because the issue of concern in this writing is “whether the ocean is a dangerous weapon?” for the sake of brevity, we will discuss only that issue.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY: This is an appeal of a Superior Court of Plymouth County, Mass. decision where a jury found the defendant guilty of kidnapping, attempted murder, assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, and indecent assault and battery.

ISSUE: Whether for the purposes of ALM GL Ch. 265, §15A, is the ocean considered a dangerous weapon? 

HOLDING: No, the court held that for the purposes of §15A, in its natural form, the ocean could not satisfy the requisite definition of an object or instrumentality which could be controlled by a human and thus, could not be considered a dangerous weapon. 

REASONING: §15A prescribes punishment for any person who uses a dangerous weapon to commit assault and battery upon another. Mr. Shea argued that the ocean was not a dangerous weapon and because of that, he should have been acquitted of the assault and battery charges. The argument prompted the court to define what a dangerous weapon was for the purposes of §15A.  Because §15A does not define “dangerous weapon,” the Court looked to Tarrant (among other case law), where Tarrant discussed whether reasonable, objective scrutiny of the instrumentality of a dog used in an armed robbery committed by the defendant resulted in a determination that the dog presented a reasonable threat, and was thus, “dangerous per se, or dangerous as used (Commonwealth v. Tarrant, 367 Mass. 411, 416-417 (1975)).” 

Tarrant held that the instrumentality of the dog was material in making a determination as to whether the dog was a dangerous weapon. The Court also looked to Farrell. In Farrell, the term “dangerous weapon” was defined as “any instrument or instrumentality so constructed or so used as to be likely to produce death or great bodily harm (Commonwealth v. Farrell, 322 Mass. 606, 614-615 (1948)),” the court acknowledged a nexus between all of the case law relied upon in that each in case the defendant used and controlled some object (or body of matter) as a weapon during the commission of a crime. Yet, while understanding the general importance and applicability of Tarrant and Farrell relative to whether something is constructed to be dangerous, or used in a manner likely to pose a danger the, Court acknowledged that the very nature of a large body of water such as the ocean poses inherent dangers. However, those inherent dangers do not qualify the ocean as a weapon pursuant to §15A.

Instead, the Court understood that to be a dangerous weapon pursuant to §15A, there is a requirement that the object (or body of matter) used in the crime be subjected to and under the control of the defendant. To decide the question of whether the ocean is a dangerous weapon, the court had to first answer the question: Could the defendant control the ocean? The court rationalized that while in its natural state, as it was when the women were thrown overboard, the ocean was large and beyond the capability of being controlled by Mr. Shea. Therefore, for the purposes of §15A, the ocean cannot be an object or instrumentality subject to being controlled and used as a weapon.

DECISION: Reversed. The assault and battery by means of dangerous weapon conviction was set aside.

COMMENTS: This case, along with the accompanying case law, proves to be an excellent resource when the question of whether some object or body of matter can be considered to be a dangerous weapon. 

  • Tarrant is instrumental in illustrating how the court scrutinizes the instrumentality of some object or body of matter in determining whether it should be considered to be a dangerous weapon when used in a crime (Tarrant, 367 Mass. 411, 416-417 (1975)). 
  • Farrell discusses how the term “dangerous weapon” is defined (Commonwealth v. Farrell, 322 Mass. 606, 614-615 (1948)).