R. vs. Dudley and Stephens

R. v. Dudley and Stephens
(from Wikipedia, Redirected from Regina v. Dudley & Stephens)
Full Case Name: Her Majesty The Queen v. Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens
Sitting Judge: Lord Coleridge
R. v. Dudley and Stephens ([1884] 14 QBD 273 DC) is a leading English criminal case
famous for its establishing the precedent on the use of ‘necessity’ as a criminal
defense, and for its use of the ‘slippery slope’ argument in formulating its holding.
Facts of the Case:
The English yacht Migonette set sail for Sydney, Australia from Southampton,
England on May 19, 1884 with a crew of four. The crew consisted of Tom Dudley,
the captain Edmund Stephens; Edmund Brooks; and Richard Parker, the cabin boy.
On July 5, the yacht sank due to bad weather off the Cape of Good Hope,
stranding the entire crew of four on a single 13-foot lifeboat. For twelve days they
survived on two tins of turnips that the Captain recovered prior to leaving the ship and
whatever they could catch.
After eight days without food or water, Dudley proposed that Richard Parker
(cabin boy) be sacrificed to feed the others. Parker, at this point of time, due to hunger
and drinking sea-water, was immobile and possibly unconscious. Brooks did not
consent (agree), and no one asked Parker. Dudley proposed that if there was no vessel
in sight by the next day, the boy should be killed. On July 25, with no vessel in sight,
Dudley, with the assent (agreement) of Stephens, said a prayer and slit the boy’s
throat, killing him.
Despite Brooks’ dissent (disagreement), all of the survivors fed on the body for
the next four days until they were picked up by a German boat. The remaining crew
was brought to Falmouth where Dudley and Stephens were charged with murder.
The initial trial in the city of Exeter was in front of a sympathetic
(understanding) jury. Although cannibalism was not an accepted practice at the time,
the seafaring community was receptive to the unique challenges of being cast away at
sea. While not common practice, it was understood amongst the naval community that
in a situation where lives were to be sacrificed, the cabin boy should be the one chosen
as they generally had no family or dependents (children, etc). Prior to coming to trial,
Dudley thought that this was part of the law and that he would not be charged with
Even Parker’s family testified that the defendants (those being brought to trial, in this
case Dudley and Stephens) were probably justified in their actions.
In its verdict, the jury stated that they found all the facts of the prosecution’s (the
party charging the defendants with a crime, in this case, the English legal system) case
to be accurate, but that they were unsure whether the circumstances would constitute
legal homicide. The question was sent to London for review.
At the Divisional Court of the Queen’s Bench Division, the panel of judges
found that there was insufficient ‘necessity’ for the killing. The judges argued that
allowing an exception to murder for certain “perilous” circumstances would set a
dangerous precedent (example) for the future, as courts could interpret the decision to
acquit (excuse or find not guilty) other forms of killing. The presiding justice, Lord
Coleridge, went as far as to call Dudley and Stephens’ actions inconsistent with the
morals of civilized societies.
Brooks was acquitted (excused) of any involvement, but Dudley and Stephens
were found guilty and sentenced to death, which was later commuted to six months’
imprisonment by Queen Victoria under the Royal Prerogative.
Today, the case is commonly studied and debated by law students in common
law countries. The “slippery slope” argument holds that “a relatively small first step
leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant effect, much like an
object given a small push over the edge of a slope sliding all the way to the bottom”
(Wikipedia). This case demonstrates the use of the slippery slope argument as the
judges ultimately decided that excusing murder in this case, even though the situation
was exceptional and perilous, would set a dangerous precedent (example) for future
murder cases. If the judges had decided to excuse murder as a “necessity” in this case,
what type of cases in the future might try to use the Dudley and Stephens case as
reason to excuse murder? Essentially the slippery slope argument in this case asks the
question: “If it is excused now, where will the line be drawn in the future?” This
argument can be applied to a variety of legal circumstances including gun legislation,
privacy concerns, and self-defense/violence cases.