Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, 14 Q.B.D. 273 (1884)

Case Name: Regina v. Dudley and Stephens
Citation: 14 Q.B.D. 273 (1884) Queens Branch Division

Facts: Four seamen were stranded on an open boat (life boat) at sea. After twenty days, two of the seamen killed the youngest (17 or 18 years old) to use his body for food. Four days later the three men were rescued. The jury found the facts but entered a special verdict seeking the advice of the Court whether or not this constituted murder.

Issue: Whether the extreme circumstances of the seamen provided them with a legal justification (necessity) for murder.

Defendant’s argument: They were in extreme circumstances and if they did not kill the boy, none of them would have lived. The boy was the weakest and would probably have died anyways. It was better for one to die so that three may live as opposed to all four dying. Necessity is a justification for murder.

State’s argument: The only acceptable taking the life of another is in “self-defence” when the assailant is seeking to kill another. Here, the boy was not the aggressor and did not do anything worthy of death.

Court’s reasoning: The two men should not have made the decision to kill another and the judge is sure not to condone this because of the dangerous precedent it would set when situations like this arise. “[i]t is quite plain that such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime.” He talks about the morals of laying down one’s life for another (both found in heathen and Christian texts).

Holding: Although the temptation was great (and even he might not be able to resist it) does not give a man the right to declare temptation to be an excuse. “It is therefore our duty to declare that the prisoners’ act in this case was willful murder” and there was not a “legal justification of the homicide.”

Judgment: The two men received the death penalty (which was later commuted by the Crown to six months imprisonment).

People v. Zackowitz, 254 NY 192 (1930)

Case Name: People v. Zackowitz
Citation: 254 NY 192 (1930)

Facts: Zackowitz, the defendant, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death after killing a young man, Coppola. The incident occurred after Coppola and three other young men said insulting words to the defendant’s wife. The defendant’s wife informed Zackowitz after the incident when the two of them were at home. Enraged Zackowitz went back to the men, exchanged words, and shot one of the men, Coppola, with a pistol. The state brought in evidence about three pistols and a teargas gun (none of which were used in the shooting) to show that Zackowitz was “a desperate type of criminal” and a “person criminally inclined.”

Issue: Whether the evidence regarding the defendant’s three pistols and teargas gun were properly admitted.

State’s argument: The evidence was brought to show the defendant’s killing was deliberate and premeditated (first-degree murder) due to the inference that he was “a desperate type of criminal” and a “person criminally inclined.”

Defendant’s argument: The evidence shows a murderous propensity which is character evidence. Under the rules of evidence, character evidence cannot be introduced unless the defendant first makes it an issue.

Reasoning: The evidence was improperly admitted as character evidence which cannot be introduced unless the defendant first makes it an issue. This is to prevent prejudice of the defendant by the jury. Not to mention, the evidence might not even have been relevant.

Judgment: The conviction was reversed and a new trial ordered.

In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)

Case Name: In Re Winship
Citation: 397 U.S. 358 (1970)

Facts: A juvenile court found by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed larceny.

Issue: Whether the preponderance of the evidence standard applied in the juvenile court was constitutionally permissible in a criminal case.

State’s argument: The defendant’s crime was “petty” and his punishment was only that he was to be confined for one and a half years at a “training school.” The requirement of a reasonable doubt standard in lower crimes would burden district attorneys who already have an overly burdensome caseload.

Defendant’s argument: The requirement that a criminal charge be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt dates back to our early years as a Nation. The Due Process Clause implicitly requires this standard and lowers the risk of innocent individuals being convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Holding: The Due Process Clause requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt in this case.

Reasoning: The reasonable doubt standard is “a prime instrument for reducing the risk of convictions resting on factual error.” The standard is indispensable to the respect and confidence of the community in how criminal law is applied because every individual has confidence that his government will not “adjudge him guilty of a criminal offense without convincing a proper factfinder of his guilt with utmost certainty.”

Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968)

Facts: Duncan was convicted of simple battery (a misdemeanor) and was sentenced to serve 60 days in the parish prison and pay a fine of $150. Duncan sought a jury trial but was denied because the Louisiana Constitution grants jury trials only in cases in which capital punishment or imprisonment at hard labor may be imposed.

Defendant’s Argument: A trial by jury is “fundamental to the American scheme of justice” and protects against arbitrary rule, which is one of the major themes in our country’s settlement.

State’s Argument: If a right to a jury trial is granted in every criminal case, the state’s resources will be exhausted. Also, it is not wise to allow “laymen” to determine the facts because they are untrained. Furthermore, if the court holds that the 14th Amendment assures a right to a jury trial, it will “cast doubt on the integrity of every trial conducted without a jury.”

Judgment: Reversed and remanded.

Court’s Reasoning: The right to a jury trial in a criminal case is fundamental and present in the 6th Amendment. The 14th Amendment should incorporate this right because it is so “fundamental to the American scheme of justice.”

Dissent: The right to a jury trial varies from state to state. The state should be allowed to govern its own citizens and if its own citizens want the right to a jury in all criminal cases, they can seek it through the political process.