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The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendants, Thomas Dudley (Mr. Dudley) and Edwin Stephens (Mr. Stephens) (Defendants) and two other gentlemen, Mr. Brooks and the victim, Richard Parker (Mr. Parker), were stranded on a boat for several days. When it appeared that the whole party would likely die of thirst and starvation, the Defendants decided to sacrifice Mr. Parker for the good of the rest.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A person may not sacrifice another person’s life to save his own.

    Facts. The defendants, Mr. Brooks and the victim Mr. Parker were English seamen. The group was cast away in a storm on the high seas and was compelled to put into an open boat that had no supply of food or water. After the group had been without food for seven days and without water for five days, the Defendants spoke to Mr. Brooks about sacrificing the victim Mr. Parker to save the rest. Mr. Brooks dissented and the victim was not consulted. Mr. Dudley suggested that if no vessel was in sight the next morning, they would kill the victim. No vessel appeared the next day, so Mr. Dudley with the assent of Mr. Stephens killed the victim. The three remaining castaways fed upon the victim Mr. Parker for four days at which time a passing vessel rescued them.

    Issue. Does the defense of necessity permit the killing of one person to save others?

    Held. No. At the time of this case the doctrine of necessity was still largely unexplored. Much of the prevailing authority at the time spoke of necessity in terms of what is now called self-defense, i.e. taking another’s life to safeguard one’s own. Lord Bacon provided some authority for the existence of the defense of necessity to lesser crimes. For example, a hungry man is not guilty of larceny for stealing food. However, the Queen’s Bench acknowledged that no court has ever accepted necessity as a defense to murder and for good reason. Permitting such a defense to be asserted raises poignant questions such as how does one measure the comparative values of lives and who decides such things. Further, specific to the present case, Lord Coleridge asks, “Was it more necessary to kill [Parker] than one of the grown men?” While this murder was arguably not “devilish” and even though the men probably would not have survived otherwise, Lord Coleridge held that there is never any absolute or unqualified necessity to preserve one’s own life. Once such a defense is allowed, there is no telling what atrocious crimes may be justified by the excuse of necessity.

    Discussion. Necessity is never a defense to murder.


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