What it means to put an eye out

Health Hamacher, The Daily Record Newswire

In a case that gained national attention, the N.C. Court of Appeals recently leaned on decisions from California and Texas — and a definition from the New Oxford American Dictionary — to clarify its malicious maiming statute, ruling that causing one to lose eyesight, without physically removing an eye, is sufficient for conviction.

In State of North Carolina v. Matthew Coakley, the court looked at the question of whether “putting out” an eye meant it had to be physically removed by a violent act, previously unanswered by North Carolina case law. The martial arts community was especially interested in the case of defendant Coakley, a 29-year-old amateur mixed martial arts fighter who has notched 14 wins in 20 fights.

An unsanctioned—and according to prosecutors—unprovoked bar fight in 2012 led to Coakley’s conviction for malicious maiming and a sentence of six-to-eight years in prison, both upheld on Dec. 31 by the appeals court.

According to court documents, on July 7, 2012, Coakley and a group of friends from his gym went to the Brickhouse sports pub in Raleigh to watch an Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view event. So, too, did alleged victim Denny Clark. What’s undisputed is that around 10 p.m., Clark was standing in a packed bar, apparently obstructing Coakley’s view of a TV screen. Coakley told Clark to move, records show, and Clark responded that he couldn’t move because of the crowd.

The exact tone of each man is debated, but words were exchanged. At about 1 a.m., both men ended up in the restroom at the same time.

But what happened next and who’s to blame depend on whom you ask.

According to the state, Clark exited a stall and was confronted by an angry Coakley, fists clinched and staring. Clark allegedly said, “Really? Over a TV?” before being battered and knocked unconscious by the trained fighter. He woke up on the restroom floor, documents say, and told a friend to call police.

According to Coakley, the heavily tattooed and taller Clark was the aggressor.

Coakley said he and a friend went to the restroom and were discussing the earlier confrontation when Coakley heard “snickering” from one of the stalls. As he was waiting to wash his hands, Coakley testified, Clark approached him, grabbed his neck and pushed him toward a wall.

During the scuffle, Coakley said, he dodged punches and hit Clark about four times in self-defense.

Clark was taken by ambulance to Duke University Medical Center where doctors discovered he had suffered a schleral laceration and detached retina, records show.

An optic plastic surgeon who treated Clark called it a “devastating injury.” After a month of observation, confident that Clark would never regain vision, the doctor surgically removed Clark’s eye.

Coakley was arrested on July 25 and indicted in September for malicious maiming, assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and assault inflicting serious bodily injury. Found guilty on all charges, he was sentenced to 72-99 months for maiming and a consecutive suspended term of 24-41 months for the assaults.

According to N.C. General Statute Section 14-30, a person is guilty of malicious maiming if he “of malice aforethought, unlawfully cut out or disable the tongue or put out an eye of any other person, with intent to murder, maim or disfigure.”

Coakley argued on appeal that the trial court erred by disjunctively instructing the jury that it could convict him of malicious maiming if it found that he had “disabled or put out” Clark’s eye. In addition to the statute requiring actual removal of the eye, he argued, “disabling” would include temporary injuries and injuries less serious than the total loss of use, though he abandoned the latter argument during oral argument.

The appeals court unanimously upheld Coakley’s conviction, noting California law stating that to “put out” an eye means to “injure it to such an extent it cannot be used for the ordinary and usual practical purposes of life;” Texas law requiring “total destruction of the sight of an eye;” and the dictionary definition “to blind someone, typically in a violent way.”

“We agree with the holdings in these jurisdictions that the total loss of eyesight, without actual physical removal, is sufficient to support a finding that an eye was ‘put out’ and, therefore, is sufficient to support a conviction for malicious maiming,” wrote Judge Lisa Bell.

The court also noted in a footnote that testimony at trial clearly established that though the eye was physically removed by Clark’s surgeon, it was a medical necessity and a direct result of Coakley’s actions.

The court did find that the trial court erred by entering a consolidated judgment for both assault convictions, as the statute for assault inflicting serious bodily injury prohibits a person convicted under its provisions from being punished if punishment covered under another provision of law is greater.

In this case, punishment for assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury is in fact greater.

“Therefore, we arrest judgment on Defendant’s conviction of inflicting serious bodily injury and remand for resentencing on Defendant’s conviction of felonious assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury,” Bell wrote.



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