necessary murder? (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on january 30, 2020

Recently, the case R v Dudley and Stephens, a legal matter that arose in 1866, forcing the court to decide whether Necessity is justification for Murder, was brought to my attention.

Here's the case: an English yacht, the Mignonette, was being sent to Australia, as it had just been purchased by an Australian lawyer named John Henry Want. Onboard were four men: Tom Dudley, the captain; Edwin Stephens; Edmund Brooks; and Richard Parker, an orphaned 17-year-old who had signed on as a cabin boy. (Fun fact: In Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Richard Parker, the tiger, is named after this Richard Parker.)

On July 5th, 1884, a storm was approaching the yacht, and Dudley ordered the boat to heave to so as to give them a more peaceful night's sleep. This decision proved to be a mistake. Soon after Richard Parker went below to prepare tea, a wave struck the boat and carried away the bulwark on the lee side of the ship.

Realizing that the ship was doomed, Dudley ordered the lifeboat lowered. In the process, a hole was made in the flimsy wood. The Mignonette sank in less than five minutes, and the crew piled into the four-meter-long lifeboat. Before it sank, the crew managed to salvage some navigation equipment and two cans of turnips.

The nearest land was 1,100 kilometers away.

Dudley was able to throw together a sea anchor to hold the lifeboat steady, but the first night was not easy. At one point, the crew had to fight off a shark with the oars.

They waited two days before opening their first can of turnips. The crew split the five pieces between them. The can lasted them two days.

Two days later, they caught a turtle, which provided a substantial portion of meat.

Hydration, however, was an issue. They had been unable to salvage fresh water from the ship, and it was believed at the time that drinking seawater would be fatal (it isn't really, but it takes more water for your body to remove the salt from your system than you gain, so it dehydrates you). The turtle's blood was deemed unfit for consumption when seawater contaminated it. The crew took to drinking their urine.

On the 16th or 17th, the crew began to discuss the possibility of drawing lots to determine a sacrificial victim who could be consumed by the others. The debate continued for days.

On the 20th, fifteen days after the wreck, Parker became sick from drinking seawater. Stephens may also have experimented with seawater.

On the 21st, the debate about sacrificing a crew member reached its highest intensity, although it was not resolved.

Two days later, while Parker was asleep, Dudley told the others that the survival of three of them was worth the loss of one and insisted that they should draw lots. Brooks refused.

Later that night, Dudley discussed the matter again with Stephens, pointing out that Parker was an orphan with no family and was probably going to die anyway, while he and Stephens had wives and children. They let the matter rest until the next morning.

The next day, there was still no sign of a potential rescue, so Dudley and Stephens silently agreed that they would kill Parker.

Brooks later claimed that he had never given his assent, although Dudley and Stephens both insisted that he had.

Dudley, standing over Parker, said a prayer and then stabbed him in the jugular vein with a penknife.

As he was slain, Parker is said to have murmured, "What, me?"

Feeding on Parker's body, the other three were sustained for five or six more days until they were finally rescued on the 29th.

Once the three arrived back in England, they were put on trial on the Eighth of September for Murder.

Brooks, in return for freedom from prosecution, testified against Dudley and Stephens at the trial.

The prosecutor, hoping to attain a guilty verdict, convinced the jury to sign a special verdict, giving the right to declare Dudley and Stephens guilty or innocent to a panel of Judges.

On the Fourth of December, Dudley and Stephens were put on trial before the Judges.

The real question in this whole trial was whether Need is justification for Murder. Would it have been better not to kill Parker and then all die?

The Judges had a tough decision to make, but in my opinion, they made the right one.

Here is an excerpt from their verdict:

"To preserve one's life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it. War is full of instances in which it is a man's duty not to live, but to die. The duty, in case of shipwreck, of a captain to his crew, of the crew to the passengers, of soldiers to women and children, as in the noble case of the Birkenhead; these duties impose on men the moral Necessity, not of the preservation, but of the sacrifice of their lives for others, from which in no country, least of all, it is to be hoped, in England, will men ever shrink, as indeed, they have not shrunk."

Note what they said: In this case, it was not proper for the cabin boy to sacrifice himself for the Captain. Instead, it was the Captain's duty to sacrifice himself for his crew, including Parker. This shows that the motive of the men was perverted.

However, as I stated, the issue wasn't whether they were guilty; it was whether or not Necessity is a valid justification for Murder. The Judges continued to say this:

"It must not be supposed that in refusing to admit temptation to be an excuse for crime it is forgotten how terrible the temptation was; how awful the suffering; how hard in such trials to keep the judgment straight and the conduct pure. We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules which we could not ourselves satisfy. But a man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime."

Isn't that beautiful?

The Judges begin by showing that they understand what was going through the minds of Dudley and Stephens. They clarify that they aren't underestimating the temptation, but keeping "the judgement straight and the conduct pure."

One of the best parts is what they say next: "We are often compelled to set up standards we cannot reach ourselves, and to lay down rules which we could not ourselves satisfy."

The Judges are pointing out that, however much the men were tempted, and whatever they would have done in the situation, it doesn't change that what they did was wrong. They even say so: "[A] man has no right to declare temptation to be an excuse, though he might himself have yielded to it, nor allow compassion for the criminal to change or weaken in any manner the legal definition of the crime."

Remember what I said, back in my first blog post, about what the term "See With Eyes Closed" means to me? I said that seeing with your eyes closed was making your decisions on what you know is right without letting yourself be biased by extenuating circumstances, pity, or a feeling of guilt that you would have done the same.

However, Jesus did say, "judge not lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1), and these Judges knew it. While they could not, with a clear conscience, declare these men innocent, they likewise could not give them a strict sentence. The Judges sentenced Dudley and Stephens to six months in prison, which is, as far as I can find, the most lenient murder sentence ever.

However lenient the sentence was, it established a precedent that still exists in law, that Necessity is not in any way a valid reason to commit an act of Murder.

The men were released on May 20th, 1885, a year and a day after the Mignonette had set sail.

Dudley, sadly, never accepted either that his sentence was just or that he had been in the wrong to kill Parker.

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