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Law School Case Brief

Commonwealth v. Twitchell - 416 Mass. 114, 617 N.E.2d 609 (1993)


Fair warning is part of the due process doctrine of vagueness, which requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.


Defendants David R. Twitchell Ginger Twitchell were practicing Christian Scientists. On April 8, 1986, their two-and one-half-year old son, R.T., died of the consequences of peritonitis caused by the perforation of his bowel, which had been obstructed as a result of an anomaly known as Meckel's diverticulum. There was evidence that the condition could be corrected by surgery with a high success rate. Defendants were later indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter, and after separate trials in Massachusetts superior court, a jury found them guilty. Judgment were entered on the verdicts. On request of direct appeal, defendants challenged their convictions claiming that the spiritual treatment provision of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 273, § 1 barred their prosecution because they were following the tenets of their Christian Science faith in refusing to get medical care for R.T. In conjunction with that argument, defendants alleged that given the provision and an opinion of the Massachusetts Attorney General on its effect, they did not receive fair warning that they could be charged with involuntary manslaughter.


Was a mistake of law a defense to a criminal offense when defendants relied on the misleading interpretation of the law regarding that offense?




The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reversed the superior court's judgments, set aside the verdicts and remanded the cases for a new trial, if the district attorney concluded that such a prosecution was necessary in the interests of justice. The court found that defendants were subject to a common law duty to provide for the care of their children, the breach of which could form the basis for an involuntary manslaughter charge. It found that the spiritual treatment provision did not foreclose an involuntary manslaughter charge and that the involuntary manslaughter statute gave fair warning to defendants. However, whether the Attorney General's written opinion about the spiritual treatment provision could have led defendants to believe that they did not need to obtain medical treatment for their son was a question of fact that should have been presented to the jury, and the failure to do so could have led to a miscarriage of justice.

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