In 1992, Harry Jack Spakes was serving out a burglary sentence in a prison near Amarillo, Texas. He did his time in a large dormitory with inmates who’d been convicted on similar charges. He’d perhaps made some bad choices in his life, but he was about to be faced with a series of impossible choices.
“On a Friday night, two officers came in cussing and turned the light on, and told me to—excuse me—‘Pack my shit.’ And this worried me. Move me where? What? I haven’t done anything,” Spakes says.
He was transferred to a four-man, maximum security dorm. No explanation was given. His new cellmates were still in their late teens, all convicted of capital murder.
“One was in there for chopping up his girlfriend with a hatchet. Another one was in there for shooting a convenient store clerk for like, three or four dollars. And the other one was there for burglarizing and killing a man and woman in their trailer and setting their trailer on fire,” he says.
Spakes had reason to believe he was being set up, being placed with men like this. At his previous prison, he’d filed a grievance that got a corrections officer demoted. Jack heard through the inmate grapevine that the officer was looking for revenge.
This scared Spakes. “When an officer makes a threat like that, you know it is viable. You know it can be done. Once a threat is made, you have to listen to it.”
Spakes believed this threat was now in action. But he tried to lie low and get along with his new cellmates. Then after a couple of weeks, his cellmates told him they planned to escape. They’d made a knife from a tin can top. Spakes says they wanted to hold it to a female officer’s throat, steal her keys, and escape out the back door of the prison. And if Spakes didn’t come with them, they’d kill him.
“They couldn’t leave me behind, because they were afraid that I would tell the control center that they were escaping,” he says.
And now that he knew of the plan, his cellies were watching him. “They were always there. You know, it’s never dark, you’re never alone, it’s never quiet,” Spakes says.
His choice was to break the law and bust out with these violent men, or ask a prison system he didn’t trust to protect him.
Spakes chose to escape. But he figured he could convince his cellmates to try something less dangerous and thus save both his life and the guard’s. He had once worked in construction, so he came up with a plan to get out through the prison’s ventilation system. He knew the boiler room door to the outside, by law, had to remain unlocked to prevent people from getting trapped inside.
“It worked just like that. And soon as we opened the door into the alley, closed the door, they took off, running across the street and I went in a different direction. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.”
Here Spakes had another choice. He knew under the law, that he should turn himself in. But he was afraid to do that in this jurisdiction. He just wanted to get somewhere he felt safe.
“I wanted to contact my attorney first and I thought if I call my attorney, come get me, then we’ll take care of this,” he says
He decided to walk to the neighboring county. He walked for hours in the cold until he reached a church. “So I went inside and got a drink, and this gentlemen came out and said, ‘What did I need?’ and I said ‘I would like to make a phone call and call my attorney.’ And he said, ‘All right Jack, we know who you are.’”
The man happened to be an off-duty police officer. He brought Spakes back to prison. Now he faced escape charges—a serious felony. “Well, the jury came back and gave me 60 years. I didn’t think that I really should really get that,” Spakes says. “I felt that I was justified in committing an escape because it was the lesser of two evils. Should I die? Should I let them kill somebody?”
Spakes spent day after day in the prison’s law library. Surely the law had something to offer him. And it did – a little. Spakes came across something called “the defense of necessity.”
“In other words, I did this but I’m not guilty,” says Spakes.
The necessity defense is one of the biggest longshots in the law books. Under it, a defendant basically tells a judge: “Yes, I broke the law. I admit it. But I had no choice. And you should be merciful.”
“Why does the defense of necessity exist? It exists because there needs to be a place in the law to deal with extreme and rare situations where there are really no other defenses available to be considered,” says Joshua Dressler, a professor of law at Ohio State University. He wrote about necessity in a casebook used by hundreds of law schools. “The necessity defense is saying that people should be entitled to cause harm if it’s to prevent a greater harm and that the law is on your side.”
Dressler says necessity is not a popular defense in the U.S. because it almost never succeeds. To understand why, you actually have to go back to a case that happened in England more than a hundred years ago:Regina versus Dudley and Stephens.
Jim Brown is a local historian in Southampton, U.K. He brought me to the memorial stone of the victim of the case. The stone is made of granite, laid down flat, with big, bold print etched onto its surface. A bouquet of fresh flowers lies in front. He reads out the etching: “Richard Parker was killed and eaten by Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens to prevent starvation. Regina versus Dudley and Stephens, 1884, established the precedent that necessity is no defense against a charge of murder. Concerning survival, cannibalism, following the shipwreck, the case overturned the folklore of the Custom of the Sea.”
The case goes back to a journey by a British yacht on its way to Australia. After nearly two months at sea, things took a turn for the worse with a tropical storm. The ship’s stern was damaged, and it started to sink. The crew managed to get the ship’s 13-foot dinghy over the side, but then were stranded at sea in this vessel.
“They had no water except for the rains that came, and they had nothing to eat except a couple of tins of turnips,” says Dressler. “So basically, after three weeks, they were starving…and they didn’t have any reason to think they were going to be rescued anytime soon.”
The 17-year-old cabin boy, Richard Parker, had been weakened by drinking sea water. The other three “discussed the idea of that maybe one of the men should be sacrificed, and then the others could eat the remains of that person in order to survive long enough to be rescued,” Dressler relates.
And so, Jim Brown says, the captain and one other crew member killed Richard Parker: “They cut his throat, drank his blood, any moisture they could get and they ate his liver and his heart, while it was still hot, cut it into strips. And that continued for the next five days. Then they were rescued by a passing boat.
After the rescue, Dudley was convinced that others would accept what happened. Cannibalism by stranded sailors is harsh, but not unheard of. “And so when they returned to land, he was very up front up about, explained what had happened and so was very surprised when he and Stephens were charged with murder,” Dressler says.
They went on trial in December 1884. The publicity was huge on both sides of the Atlantic. In the end, the presiding judge, Lord Coleridge, ruled that the sanctity of life trumped all other concerns for survival. Dudley and Stephens were convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
“That decision basically suggests that there is no defense of necessity when a person kills an innocent individual, even if it saves five lives or one hundred lives, it won’t matter,” Dressler says
Although they lost on paper, Dressler says public support for the sailors remained so high that their death sentences were eventually commuted to just six months imprisonment. Even the family of the victim, Richard Parker, sided with his killers.
Historian Jim Brown is a distant relative of Parker’s by marriage. He says the family struggled with the wording of the memorial: “’Lord, lay not this sin to their charge’ was put there at request of Richard’s older brother, because they had a lot of sympathy for those who ate him and killed him actually because it was almost the law of the sea, out of necessity,” says Brown. “They saw the logic in it, he was dying anyway and in his death, he could save others. So they felt it was justified, it was simple as that really,” he adds.
Still, the judge felt otherwise. And it’s his verdict lives on in the United States today. As a result, Dressler says, it would be almost impossible to argue here that you had to murder an innocent person. But necessity does come up from time to time in other cases.
Call it the Hail Mary Defense. That’s the position Gerald Uelman says he found himself in. Uelman served as pro-bono counsel in the 1990s for a group of marijuana cultivators, the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Collective. The group had grown and distributed medical marijuana legally in California until the federal government ordered them to stop. They refused on the grounds of “medical necessity,”arguing that marijuana made life bearable for clients with chronic conditions like AIDs, glaucoma, and cancer.
Gerry Uelman is no stranger to tough cases. He was a member of OJ Simpson’s so-called Dream Team. But he says arguing necessity before the Supreme Court? That was tough. “The result was pre-ordained. There’s no way that they were going to permit this regardless of what arguments we made,” he says.
Still, it kept the cause alive a little bit longer. And maybe that’s why necessity was also popular argument on the part some Vietnam War protesters charged with trespassing and other crimes.
“They would argue that…I’m trying to do stop a war…therefore I’m doing the lesser of two harms by trespassing, non-violently on property in order to prevent violence in Vietnam,” Dressler says. “And usually when those kind of cases occurred, judges wouldn’t even permit the jury to consider the defense of necessity.”
So cannibals, cannabis-growers, and activists all tried and failed with the necessity defense. But there is one place—at least in US law—where it sometimes works: prison escapes. Back in Texas, inmate Jack Spakes was serving an extra 60 years on his sentence for escape. But the necessity argument gave him hope. He’d run across a case from the 1970s, “The People v. Lovercamp,” which set out five conditions for necessity to escape.
So Spakes worked up an argument with his attorney. In court, though, the judges weren’t sure whether he met the final condition: “The person immediately reports to the proper authorities when he has obtained a position of safety from the immediate threat.”
Spakes argued in return that the prison he escaped from was not a safe place. His case made it up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court in the state, and a place necessarily known for taking an inmate’s side.
In the end, the judges made a surprising ruling in Spakes’s favor. They weren’t just thinking about Spakes’s situation; they were also reviewing how lower state courts had handled necessity. In the end, the judges held that Texas courts actually have no business denying the necessity defense: Not to Jack Spakes, nor anyone armed with a credible necessity argument who is brave enough to try it out on a judge or jury. The Court would leave that up to the satelegislature to decide whether the defense could or could not apply to a specific charge.
“I know of frankly no other state that takes that position. Whether other states will look to Texas, remains to be seen,” says Dressler.
“It’s a landmark decision in the state of Texas now. I feel proud that I was able to put the pieces together and make a complete picture of the puzzle,” Spakes says. He is now out of prison on parole.
But he still goes back to talk with inmates about getting an education. And once, he was approached by one of the former cellmates—apprehended the same day as he was—who’d forced him to choose between escape or death. “He started crying, and he came to me and hugged me. He said: ‘I am so glad I did the things you told me to do. I started studying the law. I’m going to start getting an education.’ I told him, ‘The more you learn the more you put in your head. They can’t take that away from you. Get off the weights. The weights won’t keep you out of prison. But knowledge is something that will never be taken away from you.’”
Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College was the scholarly advisor on this story.