Punxsutawney Phil is innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt.
That is the legal opinion of an Ohio prosecutor who on Tuesday abandoned his plan to seek the death penalty against the furry forecaster for blowing it by calling for an early spring.
The prosecutor dropped his pursuit, which would have caused an international outcry but probably made at least one decent stew, after one of Phil’s handlers, a top-hatted groundhog enthusiast named Bill Deeley, took the fall.
Phil appeared Feb. 2 and was reported not to have seen his shadow, suggesting an early spring. What the critter actually meant when he appeared at Gobbler’s Knob, it seems, was six more weeks of winter.
Winter endured well beyond six weeks, as millions of frigid, snow-shoveling, cursing Americans can attest.
“All my fault,” said Deeley, who volunteered to a local television reporter over the weekend that he had not been drinking. “Misinterpretation by me. I just read him wrong.”
The prosecutor, Michael T. Gmoser of Butler County, Ohio, told NBC News that it was time to exonerate the groundhog because the handler “stepped up to the burrow and took responsibility.”
“I always appreciate the acceptance of responsibility in all the criminal cases we handle here,” he said from his office in the city of Hamilton, where it was snowing an hour earlier.
“We do a lot of serious work here,” he added, almost defensively. “This has been a little lighthearted fun.”
Gmoser said he had been persuaded by a sheaf of thorough legal arguments — friend-of-the-groundhog briefs, if you will — turned in by Elana Clavner’s fourth-grade class at Cleveland Community School.
One of them figures that what Phil really needed was a Hawaiian vacation. Another suggested bagels. Still another warned that Phil might bite the prosecutor.
“I mean you can’t cancel Groundhog Day,” one child wrote. “How will you get a trained groundhog? Why would you press charges? It’s only one mistake.”
Another, applying rigorous logic, offered: “Phil is an innocent little groundhog because on the other hand the groundhog can’t predict the weather. It can’t talk.”
The teacher told the prosecutor in a letter that the students would be happy to serve as attorneys for Phil, and that the letters used their creativity in ways she hadn’t seen all year.