Shipwrecked and hungry
The ship sank on 5 July 1884. Four crew members: Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks, and the cabin boy Richard Parker, managed to get in a lifeboat with limited rations. On 24 July, the rations were exhausted, and Parker was in a coma. Dudley and Stephens murdered Parker, and the remaining three fed on Parker’s body. They were rescued by a passing vessel on 29 July.
Dudley and Stephens were charged with the murder of Parker. The evidence was that Parker would in any event have died, and, had the remaining three not fed on Parker’s body, they too would have died before being rescued. The High Court of Justice was called upon to pronounce on the averred defence of necessity to a charge of murder.
The defence failed:
“But the temptation to the act which existed here was not what the law has ever called necessity. Nor is this to be regretted. Though law and morality are not the same, and many things may be immoral which are not necessarily illegal, yet the absolute divorce of law from morality would be of fatal consequence; and such divorce would follow if the temptation to murder in this case were to be held by law an absolute defence of it. It is not so. To preserve one’s life is generally speaking a duty, but it may be the plainest and the highest duty to sacrifice it. …
“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. …. It is therefore our duty to declare that the prisoners’ act in this case was wilful murder … “
Dudley and Stephens were sentenced to death for the murder of Parker.
But the Court was not without mercy:
“It is not suggested that in this particular case the deeds were “devilish,” but it is quite plain that such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime. There is no safe path for judges to tread but to ascertain the law to the best of their ability and to declare it according to their judgment; and if in any case the law appears to be too severe on individuals, to leave it to the Sovereign to exercise that prerogative of mercy which the Constitution has intrusted to the hands fittest to dispense it.”
The Sovereign listened, and the death sentences were commuted to six months in prison.