Criminal Justice

Iowa Appeals Court Considers Meanings and Layman ID in Feces-Flinging Case


Is the meaning of the word “shit” ambiguous? And is an expert witness needed to identify feces?

The Iowa Court of Appeals pondered those questions in a July 13 opinion (PDF) that upheld a prisoner’s conviction for assaulting a guard with bodily fluid, according to the Legal Skills Prof Blog.

The prisoner, Steven Landis, was convicted after the correctional officer testified Landis squirted him with a stream of brown liquid that smelled like feces. An investigator who found the substance in Landis’ toothpaste tube agreed it had the foul odor of feces. Landis himself was quoted as telling the guard, “I got you with shit!”

Landis had argued the state did not prove its case because there was no expert testimony to confirm the substance flung was indeed feces. The court disagreed. “Indeed, it would be a rare person who had no personal experience with feces,” the court said. “Paraphrase of an old adage seems apropos under the circumstances: If it looks like feces, if it smells like feces, if it has the color and texture of feces, then it must be feces. No witness with a degree in scatology was required, nor was scientific testing required to establish the fact the substance was feces.”

The court also considered Landis’ argument that his “shit” comment was ambiguous. Standing alone, this admission would not be sufficient to support a conviction, the court agreed.

The court elaborated in a footnote cataloging the word’s many appearances and meanings in Iowa opinions. Among the phrases used: “shit list,” “You ain’t going to be shit,” “This guy’s full of shit,” “It takes a lot of guts and shit,” “What’s this not guilty shit,” “Holy shit, let’s get out of here,” “shit jobs,” “big shit,” and “sanctimonious shit.”

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