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 murder.
    • 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.