SCOTUS Upholds Guy's Porn Sentence Based on a Comma
Punctuation is important, people
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 2, 2016 12:26 PM CST
Tough break for the defendant.   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – We already know punctuation saves lives. Now a Supreme Court ruling proves it also makes or breaks legal cases. Per Courthouse News Service, the high court on Monday upheld a prison sentence for Avondale Lockhart, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to child porn charges. He had been facing an eight-year sentence, but because of a prior conviction not related to child porn (he had been convicted 10 years earlier for sexually abusing his 53-year-old girlfriend) and a pesky Oxford comma, he received 10 years. His sentence had been based on a statute that notes the mandatory minimum is required if there's a "prior conviction … under the laws of any state relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward." It's the final comma in that series that led the Supreme Court to vote 6-2 that the phrase "involving a minor or ward" only modified "abusive sexual conduct"—meaning any prior conviction for the other two crimes, against a child or an adult, could count against him.

It's a "niggling grammatical point" that "makes a world of difference," the Economist said in November. The magazine notes that "involving a minor or ward" could have been placed after each of the three crimes if it was intended to apply only to child-based offenses, or that semicolons could have been used to separate the three crimes if the child-oriented modifier was only meant to apply to the final crime. In explaining the court's interpretation, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote it's "basic intuition that when a modifier appears at the end of a list, it is easier to apply that modifier only to the item directly before it," especially if takes "more than a little mental energy" to carry the modifier throughout. But dissenting Justice Elena Kagan, along with Justice Stephen Breyer, disagreed, writing: "Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet 'an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.' You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast—not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander." (Another comma-focused legal case.)
 

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