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).

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