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Commonwealth v. Twitchell

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Mr. and Mrs. Twitchell (Defendants) were Christian Scientists who were convicted of involuntary manslaughter when they did not seek medical treatment for their ill child and the child died.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Mistake of law can be a defense when a defendant relies on a mistaken or misleading interpretation of the law given by the government official charged with enforcing the law.

    Facts.

    Defendants were Christian Scientists who did not seek medical treatment for their ill child, despite the fact that the illness was treatable with surgery. Defendants sought official religious counseling on the issue and relied on documents provided by their church. Those documents were based upon a misleading interpretation of the law written by the Attorney General of Massachusetts. Defendants were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and appealed, claiming mistake of law.

    Issue.

    Is mistake of law a defense to a criminal offense when a government official has given a mistaken or misleading interpretation of the law regarding that offense?

    Held.

    (Wilkins, J.) Yes. Mistake of law can be a defense when a defendant relies on a mistaken or misleading interpretation of the law given by the government official charged with enforcing the law. In this case, Defendants based their conduct in part on the misleading opinion of the Attorney General. Reversed and remanded for a new trial.

    Discussion.

    The theory behind this defense holds that when an individual seeks to determine the law and consults the official interpretation of the law, he should not be criminally responsible if the official interpretation is incorrect. For the defense to be effective, the individual must actually be misled or misinformed by the interpretation given by the government official in charge of interpreting the law.


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