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August 17, 2008

Any pre-class thoughts on Dudley and Stephens?

180pxmignonette I typically won't solicit pre-class discussion of our reading assignments in this space.  But because Dudley and Stephens is such a renown case and because we really will not have time to cover it completely during our first class, I cannot resist providing a forum here for any student who wants to express outrage or sympathy or anything else after reading one of the most famous cases in the history of criminal law. 

Also, I am often going to try to use this forum to provide some visuals to accompany all the text in our casebook. In this post, for example, I have provided above a drawing of the English yacht Mignonette, the small ship on which a crew of four set sail on May 19, 1884.  And I have provided below a photograph of the 13-foot lifeboat onto which the entire crew of the Mignonette escaped when their ship seemed doomed. 290pxmignonette_lifeboat

I am not sure if each of these pictures are worth 1000 words of a judicial ruling, but they do provide some useful imagery as you consider and contemplate the ruling in the case.  In addition, go to this link and search for Dudley if you would like a somewhat lighter perspective on the case.

August 17, 2008 in Reflections on class readings | Permalink


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I completely agree with the verdict although I do disagree with the moralistic aspects of the argument that support the verdict. The application of utilitarian principles to the preservation of law, which required retribution against the defendants in light of contextual circumstances, is foremost in my mind as the strongest element of this case. I particularly liked the footnote that showed what might have happened if 'greatest good for the greatest number' had continued to play out on the life raft (i.e. three men would die to preserve one). By most standards that hardly seems justified and it turns a favorable utility argument for the defendants on its head.
As a side note, I found the treatment of respected international legal scholars and court cases very humorous both for its sarcasm and the element of British superiority used as a rational basis to reach a decision.

Posted by: Jason Blake | Aug 17, 2008 11:34:36 AM

I fully agree that retribution was necessary given the circumstances. So more of a question than a comment (and trying to shore up my understanding of the utilitarian view), but in applying purely utilitarian principles to the case, is it possible to argue the men should not have been punished at all? Or is such an argument inapplicable?

Although I fully agree with the verdict reached in sentencing the men to death, my first reaction was that one could make the argument toward little to no punishment for the men. The men would not (probably not) have committed the crime under any other circumstance and in my opinion, would probably not commit the criminal act again in the future, unless in the rare instance they are caught in a similar situation. No punishment (short of death in which case they wouldn't be around to commit the act again) is going to deter the men from acting similarly under similar conditions.

Perhaps the verdict then is to deter such murder from happening moving forward in the general rather than specific deterring sense. I guess then balancing the retributive and utilitarian concepts seems appropriate. I'm not sure, just thinking out loud and curious in wondering what others opinions might be I suppose.

Posted by: Chad Rothschild | Aug 17, 2008 2:14:24 PM

I agree with the ruling and would add that the sailors had no way of knowing for sure when they would be rescued. They might have been rescued just minutes after deciding to kill the boy thus reducing the cannibalization from a necessity to a mere hobby. The law ought to punish those who would claim necessity when they simply cannot. Other than that, I agree with the court's rationale.

However, suppose Dudley, Stephens & Brooks had lied and made up a story in which Parker agreed to be killed for the sake of the group or in which he died shortly after the yacht broke apart? The fact that the boy's murderers told the truth (presumably out of remorse) left me later horrified that the court let them have the ultimate punishment. I ran a Google search on this case and found that the two men sentenced to death were later to have their sentences reduced to six months in jail. Obviously, I think that was a very good idea.

Posted by: Aman K. Sharma | Aug 17, 2008 3:52:33 PM

Apparently Dudley and Stephens were less remorseful and more boastful about the act. During the proceedings they were something like celebrities for having survived and done so in such dramatic fashion.
I think this would give the courts more of an impetus to convict because of the social value of punishing people who eat other people vice rewarding them. Not to mention that this case was not the first time that the courts had attempted to establish such a precedent.

Posted by: Jason Blake | Aug 17, 2008 4:15:04 PM

I do not agree with the death sentence imposed by the court in this case. It seems clear that the 17 / 18 year old would not have been killed under other circumstances. Why should The Crown kill two more to resurrect one life that was, likely, unable to save?
From a utilitarian perspective I am not certain I agree with a few of the previous posts (note that I was unable to buy the casebook nor was I able to find it in the library, but I did find the case online and did read a bit about punishment theories and justification). We might agree that utilitarianism is a forward thinking theory of punishment, but there are different forms of this theory. Earlier posts say that it is necessary to have a life sentence imposed to send a message or deter people from cannibalism. However, the lives of these two men should not be ruined to send a message to society. Dudley & Stephens two men are not threats to society. They should have the opportunity to rehabilitate and contribute to society.

Posted by: bill froehlich | Aug 18, 2008 9:15:55 AM

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