Commonwealth v. Twitchell


Parents were convicted of involuntary manslaughter due to their reliance on spiritual remedies largely stemming from their practice of Christian Science.  Child had a bowel syndrome and eventually died as a result.  Evidence existed that the ailment could have been corrected through routine procedure.


The Supreme Judicial Court held: the parents’ duty to seek medical attention for their child could support a conviction for involuntary manslaughter if the parents wantonly or recklessly violated that duty and parents were permitted to assert an affirmative defense that they relied on the Attorney General’s opinion regarding whether the applicable manslaughter statute provided a defense to their charges.  Parents defended on the ground that a “spiritual treatment provision” of a Massachusetts statute immunized then against criminal prosecution for failure to seek medical treatment for their child.


  1. Whether entrapment by estoppel can apply when a public official’s (attorney general) opinion is cited in a religious publication and church personnel.
  2. Whether there is a parental duty to seek medical treatment for a child despite parental reliance on religious/spiritual remedies.

Holding and Rule

  1. Defendant’s relied on a church publication that relied on the opinion of the attorney general.  The opinion mislead defendants because of “what it did not say.”  The opinion did not say that immunity did not extend to involuntary manslaughter charges.
  2. Defendants claim they did not receive “fair warning,” which is part of the due process doctrine of vagueness that “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.”  Where a defendant incorrectly relies on a public official whose responsibility it is to enforce or interpret the law, the defendant may use ignorance of the law as a viable defense option and present such a defense to a jury.
  3. A charge of involuntary manslaughter based on an omission to act can be proved only if the defendant had a duty to act and did not do so.  A parental duty of care has been recognized in the common law of homicide where parents failed to feed and provide nutrition to children.  This duty extends to the parental duty to provide medical treatment.


Reversed; verdict set aside; remanded for new trial.


Defendants were not aware of the attorney general’s actual opinion.  They were solely aware of the publication which relied on the attorney general’s opinion.  The court is extending the exception too far.  Entrapment estoppel should be presented only where the defendant experiences direct advice/opinion from the public official.

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