Regina v. Dudley and Stephens
14 Q.B.D. 273 (1884)
Dudley, Stephens, Brooks, and
Parker were all hired to sail a small yacht from England to Australia.
Dudley was the captain.
Dudley might have been
negligent in preparing the boat for its voyage.
Out in the middle of the
ocean, the boat sank, and the four men were adrift on a lifeboat. They
drifted for weeks without food or water. Eventually Dudley and Stephens
agreed that they had to kill someone and eat him. The obvious choice was
Parker, who was the weakest (and may have been in a coma by this point).
Brooks dissented, and Parker
was not given a vote.
They had considered drawing
lots for who should be killed, but decided to just kill Parker.
Dudley killed Parker and the
three ate him. Days later they were rescued.
It was believed that had
they not killed Parker, they would all have died.
Upon returning to England,
Dudley and Stephens were arrested and indicted for murder.
The Trial Court failed to come
to a decision. It was sent to an Appellate Court.
The jury understood the
facts, but they didn't know how to apply the law, so they asked the
Appellate Court's opinion.
The Appellate Court found
Dudley and Stephens guilty of murder.
Dudley and Stephens
unsuccessfully argued the defense of necessity, which basically says that they had no choice.
However, the Court found that necessity is not a common-law defense for the charge of
The Court also questioned
how the decision was made. Traditionally, in situations such as these,
people have drawn lots to see who would get killed and eaten, but that
wasn't done in this case. Parker was not consulted.
The Court considered the
concept of self defense, but ultimately
decided that self defense
only applies when you are defending yourself against another person. In
this case, they were defending themselves against a natural act, Parker
wasn't threatening them.
One judge noted that if you
are hungry and steal someone's food, you can't claim self defense, and if it isn't an appropriate defense for
robbery, how could it be appropriate for murder?
The Court didn't want to
set a precedent to allow poor people a defense against stealing food,
which was probably part of their reasoning in this decision.
Dudley and Stephens were
sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to 6 months in prison.
The judges understood that
Dudley and Stephens were desperate and probably not thinking clearly.