Mistake of Fact Jury Instruction. General v. State


Brief Brief  General v. State, 367 Md. 475 (2002).

Issue:  Mistake of Fact is a recognized defense and, when generated, must be presented to the jury.

Background:  Defendant was convicted of failure to remain at the scene of an accident resulting in injury or death and failure to render reasonable assistance following an accident  resulting in injury or death.  At trial, testimony was produced that the Defendant believed he had struck a white bag and not a person.  Trial court failed to give a specific mistake of fact instruction to the jury.  Rather, it relied on an instruction for requisite intent and knowledge for the charged offense, under a theory that this also covered the mistake of fact defense.  Court of Appeals ruled that this was an insufficient instruction and reversed and remanded for new trial. Id. at 475-79.


“As a general rule, mistake of fact is a recognized common law defense to certain crimes… [citation omitted] Mistake or ignorance of fact exists when the actor does not know what the actual facts are or believes them to be other than as they are.  In essence, a mistake of fact is a defense when it negates the existence of the mental state essential to the crime charge.” (Id. at 483-484.)

“The defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed on any theory of the defense that is fairly supported by the evidence….[citation omitted] Once the defendant properly has generated the defense of mistake of fact, he or she is entitled to have the jury understand that the State must still prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt and that the burden never shifts to the defendant.  The trial judge must convey to the jury that its ‘determination that the affirmative defense has not been established is essential to finding that the [State] has met its burden.’ [quoting Commonwealth v. Cottam, 420 Pa. Super., 311, 616 A.2d 988, 1000-01 (1992)] As in an alibi defense, ‘such an instruction is necessary due to the danger that the failure to prove the defense will be taken by the jury as a sign of the defendant’s guilt.’” (General v. State 367 Md. at 485-486, quoting Commonwealth v. Pounds, 490 Ps. 621, 633-34, 417 A.2d 597 (1980)).

“The knowledge and intent instructions, while sufficiently informing the jury of the required mental element, did not expressly direct the jury’s attention to the defense of mistake of fact.  Were we to accept the State’s argument that instruction on intent and knowledge fairly covered the mistake of fact defense, there would never be an occasion to give the instruction.” (Id. at 490.)

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