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5 Classic Criminal Law Cases Made Simple for 1Ls

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

Yesterday, we recounted five "classic" torts cases that 1Ls will surely see in the year ahead. Today, here are five classic criminal law cases to get you excited for murder and ... well, basically murder.

1. R. v. Dudley and Stephens (Queen's Bench, 1884).

I like to call this one "cannibalism on the high seas," a classic from English common law. Dudley, Stephens, Parker, and Brooks were shipwrecked and had run out of food. Dudley and Stephens killed Parker and the three remaining men ate his body to survive. Once rescued, Dudley and Stephens confessed to the murder, believing that resorting to cannibalism was a "custom of the sea." At trial, they advanced the defense of necessity; i.e., they had to kill Parker in order to survive. The court held, however, that necessity could not be a defense to murder in this situation and that even shipwrecked, Dudley and Stephens' obligation was to sacrifice their own lives rather than kill another.

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2. M'Naghten's Case (House of Lords 1843).

Daniel M'Naghten was charged with murdering the Prime Minister's secretary, Edward Drummond. At the time of his arrest, M'Naghten said he killed Drummond because "the tories in my city follow and persecute me wherever I go, and have destroyed my peace of mind. They do everything in their power to harass and persecute me; in fact they wish to murder me." Defense experts testified that M'Naghten in fact suffered from delusions. The jury found M'Naghten not guilty by reason of insanity. Following the trial, the House of Lords outlined rules for the use of the insanity defense. These "M'Naghten Rules" have remained on the books in many jurisdictions in the United States and allow a defendant to be excused from conviction if he proves that he didn't know that what he was doing was wrong.

3. R. v. Cunningham (Queen's Bench, 1957).

Cunningham broke into a house to steal the gas meter. In the process, he failed to turn off the gas. Gas fumes leaked into the house, nearly killing Mrs. Wade and her husband. Cunningham was convicted after the trial judge clarified to the jury that "malice" meant "wicked"; i.e., "something which he has no business to do and perfectly well knows it." On appeal, the Queen's Bench reversed: In order to be convicted of a crime, the defendant must have the requisite intent to commit that crime. In Cunningham's case, he had the intent to steal the gas meter, but not the intent to poison Mrs. Wade.

4. People v. Ceballos (Calif. Supreme Court, 1973).

Don Ceballos was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. He had crafted a "trap gun" -- a loaded pistol pointed at the door to his garage connected to the door by a wire. If the door was opened a few inches, the wire would pull the trigger, setting off the gun. The California Supreme Court affirmed his conviction because trap guns are inherently dangerous, unthinking machines. The court dismissed his defense that using a trap gun was no different from using a gun if he had been physically present; Ceballos wasn't there to evaluate the situation and determine whether deadly force was actually required.

5. Lawrence v. Texas (U.S. Supreme Court, 2003).

At only 11 years old, Lawrence isn't quite a classic, but it's become extremely important in the same-sex marriage debate. Responding to a weapons disturbance, police barged into Lawrence's home and found him "engaging in a sexual act" with another man. Lawrence was convicted of violating a Texas law prohibiting sexual contact with someone of the same sex. The Supreme Court tossed out the conviction on the ground that criminal laws can't punish based on subjective morality, which in this case included disapproval of homosexuals. Lawrence paved the way for the current same-sex marriage domino effect.

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