The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens

Queen’s Bench Division, 1884.

14 Q.B.D. 273.

Dressler p. 47-48, 542-545


Facts: The defendants were stranded on a ship at sea with two other men with nothing to eat.  Under severe duress, the defendants decided to kill and eat one of the other passengers.  The fourth man objected, but ended up eating as well.


Notes and Questions


1.     There is no way Dudley and Stephens should have been punished.  There is no way that the outcome that would be encouraged by punishing the defendants would be superior to the outcome that transpired.  If the defendants had been successfully deterred from eating the victim, all four of the men would have died.  Even if a death sentence were passed on Dudley and Stephens, the outcome as it was would be superior to the outcome that society apparently desires if it would pass said sentence.  My reasons are basically entirely utilitarian, but even a retributivist would have to agree that D & S’s actions are hard to classify as typically criminal.

2.     The legislature could write a statute that says a defendant shall not be found guilty of murder if in the absence of the killing both the defendant and the victim would have died of starvation.

3.     This note is tempting us to say that Parker’s life was not worth as much as those of the other three men.  Tricky, tricky!


Issue: Did the killing under the circumstances constitute murder?  Was it necessary to kill the boy?




Analysis: The court says that the force behind the killing in this case is a sort of “temptation” to do something that is known to be wrong rather than the necessity of self-preservation.




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