Characters in post-apocalyptic scenarios often resort to drastic measures to survive, but are they legally justified? While the law recognizes a defense of necessity, the defense has limits. In particular, murder (perhaps in the form of cannibalism) cannot be justified by necessity.
In The Walking Dead characters engage in cannibalism to survive. In the lawless environment of the comics & TV series, this seems justified, but what if law and order were restored? There is no statute of limitations for murder, and as it turns out, even the necessity of survival does not justify cannibalism. Note that I’m talking about cannibalism that involves killing a person, not eating someone who died from other causes.
In the law-school-famous* case of R. v Dudley and Stephens, 14 QBD 273 DC (1884), it was held that necessity is not a defense to murder. In that case, four shipwrecked men adrift in a lifeboat eventually resorted to killing and eating the youngest and weakest of the crew. The three remaining men were picked up, whereupon they admitted what happened. Two were charged with and convicted of murder and sentenced to death, though the appellate judge expected mercy, and indeed they were only sentenced to six months imprisonment. The third survivor, who had been less keen on the scheme, was not charged so that he could be called as a witness, though he had also eaten the victim.
The shipwreck case is analogous to a post-apocalyptic situation in many ways. The legal system is effectively suspended, the chances of survival are remote, and cannibalism may be a literal necessity. But while the defense of necessity may excuse trespassing, looting, and a multitude of other sins, murder remains beyond the pale.
* Law school famous is like internet famous but for law students and lawyers.