The Case of the Speluncean Explorers

The following is one of my favorite case studies that I completed in the successful pursuit of an Executive MBA from Purdue University.

This tragic situation involved a group of amateur spelunceans who were members of the Speluncean Society. Spelunceans are people interested in the exploration of caves. While these spelunceans were in a position remote from the entrance to the cave a landslide occurred. Heavy boulders blocked the only known entrance to the cave completely. Efforts to clear the landslide were expensive and took a great toll when 10 workmen’s lives were lost during the effort.

The men did have minimal food rations but that would only take them so far. They also had wireless communication for a portion of the time trapped in the cave. One of them, Whetmore, took the lead in speaking on behalf of himself and the defendants in this case with physicians about whether they could survive ten days longer if they consumed the flesh of one of their number. He was told yes they would. He could not get any advisor legal or otherwise on whether it was advisable for them to cast lots on this. He also asked if a minister or priest would answer the question and none was found that would do so.

No one was willing to step up and advise them on what their options might be in this situation. The men waited 23 days before they reached a point where something had to be done or they would die. Whetmore declined to participate in the decision after basically generating the idea of consuming one of them to survive. Whetmore had dice with him, for some reason, these were used in the final decision. Whetmore allowed someone else to roll on his behalf, but did not actually participate.

The dice rolled against his favor on this decision. He was put to death by his companions in the cave. In the end, they survived enough days to be rescued on the 32nd day. The remaining spelunceans were then defendants in this case as they were indicted for murder. This proved to be a difficult case, but in the end they were found guilty of the crime charged against them and sentenced to be hanged.

After the release of the jury, its members joined in communication to the Chief Executive asking that the sentence be commuted to an imprisonment of six months. Also, the trial judge addressed a similar communication to the Chief Executive. This left the situation with the Chief Executive awaiting a disposition of the petition of error. The article then provides their opinion of the petition of error in the case. There were five judges providing opinion. One judge declined to participate. In the end, the court was evenly divided on a decision. Ultimately, the defendants were sentenced to hanging.

In my opinion, the men should not have been charged with murder and put to death. It was governed by the state of nature in this situation and not the state of civil society of the Commonwealth. Whetmore was not willfully murdered by his colleagues. It was a matter of survival for the group. I would suggest they rewrite the statute after this verdict to differentiate between willful action and unintended action.

In this case, like one of the judges stated, when a situation arises where the coexistence of men becomes impossible, then a condition that underlies all of the precedents and statutes of the Commonwealth ceases to exist. This is contrary to the proposition that positive law is predicated on the possibility of men’s coexistence in society. I feel these men were in a situation where their coexistence was impossible for survival. Survival was a situation they were placed in and it was not a voluntary one. They entered the cave with basic understandings of the risk in their speluncean activities. There was no warning on the likelihood of a landslide occurring. They were placed in this situation. They had not entered the cave with provisions of food or water for any extended period of time because they had no reason to. Their coexistence became impossible without a drastic decision to consider consuming one of themselves. Also, of this tragic event took place a mile outside of the Commonwealth, no one would pretend that the law applicable to this situation.

I also feel that at the time Whetmore’s life was taken by the defendants they were in a “state of nature” and not a “state of civil society”. As a result, the law applicable to them was not the law enacted and established in the Commonwealth, but a law derived from the principles that were appropriate to their condition. They did something that was in agreement by all of them and proposed by Whetmore ironically. I feel they established a new charter of government appropriate to their specific situation. A situation which they found themselves in not due to any action of their own.

Similarly, ten rescue workers lost their lives trying to save the five defendants. They went into their efforts without any warning of a landslide. Engineers and government officials did not warn them of a possible landslide and they were not convicted of murder. If it was proper for these ten men to lose their lives to save five lives inside the cave, I believe it should be proper for the defendants to carry out the arrangement which would save four of their lives.

I found much validity in the concept of fidelity to enacted law that was brought up by one of the judges. He mentioned intelligent versus unintelligent fidelity as well. I feel that applies very appropriately to this case. My interpretation of this is that there is a common sense applicable to every situation we encounter most of the time. This case involves the sacrifice of one defendant to save the lives of the remaining four defendants. While technically the sacrifice involved taking this man’s life which would be murder. It also involved a tragic situation where these men were placed in a life or death position not due to any acts of their own except to go cave exploring. No one willfully took the life of another in this situation. In fact, it was a very difficult decision when you realize they waited 23 days before they made this desperate decision. The gentleman that lost his life was the originator of the very idea to sacrifice one of themselves to survive. Looking at these very valid situations it can be said these men did not commit willful murder of Mt. Whetmore. It was a matter of survival and not a willful act of murder. This is why I am saying “common sense” and “intelligent” decisions should have been made here and not “the letter of the law”. As the article said “a man may break the letter of the law without breaking the law itself”.

I also found validity in another judges observations of the case. He was amazed and apparently frustrated with his colleagues’ ability to throw an “obscuring curtain” of legalisms about every issue presented to them for decision. He described what he heard in court that afternoon including learned disquisitions on the distinction between positive law and the law of nature, the language of the statute and the purpose of the statute, judicial functions and executive functions, judicial legislation and legislative legislation. The only disappointment he had was why they did not raise the question of the legal nature of the bargain struck in the cave — whether it was unilateral or bilateral, and whether Whetmore could not be considered as having revoked an offer prior to the action taken thereunder.

After discussing all those legal terms he said that as officers of the government they were being asked what to do with the defendants, the bottom line. I think this is where he made great sense in saying that was a question of practical wisdom, to be exercised in context, not of abstract theory, but of human realities.

I feel that he is trying to say that this is not a case of technical theories with complicated reasoning and background needed. This is a case of human reality. This is a case of human nature that doesn’t deserve the complicated and confusing approach these lawyers took. These were five men, trapped in a cave, due to no fault of their own with no food or water. They lasted as long as possible before taking the life of one of their own with the specific purpose to allow the survival of the remaining four.

The consideration of public opinion came up in one judge’s observation. He said that in this case, the public opinion was that the men should not be convicted of murder. The public was also very much in agreement, up to 90% agreement. I feel that is a significant number of people with a similar opinion. Yes I agree the public can be an unreliable source for a fair amount of the time. The public can be influenced by the media whether it be television, written or social media. If the percentage of public opinion was less drastic, perhaps 60% favoring the men not be convicted, then I might put less reliability in this decision. I might put less weight in taking the public opinion into consideration. However, in this case, the public was at 90%. That is a significant amount of people saying the defendants should not be convicted of murder and should probably have been considered more heavily in the final decision.

Also, the chief executive was an older gentleman who would probably rule against the defendants. He was a man of “very stiff notions” according to the article. He was a man where public clamor usually operated on him with the reverse of the effect intended. More than likely, he would not commute the sentence of these men if they were found to have violated the law. He was a judge the followed the letter of the law regardless even if common sense would suggest otherwise. This proved to be tragic to the defendants as that is exactly the decision he made and the men were sentenced to be hanged.

In the end, it seems there are external factors to consider in this case. There are issues of common sense and the laws of nature. There are the complex issues of law that seem to muddle the issues at hand that are all part of the process, but not necessarily fair to the defendants in this case. Then there are the issues of public opinion to consider along with the type of judge who had to make the decision.

In my opinion the judgement for death penalty should have been reversed as suggested by the jury and the public. The defendants should have been given 6 months of jail time instead. That would have been more appropriate as justice served for their situation in my opinion.