The March 11th murder of Jayna Murray inside a Lulemon Athletica store in Bethesda, Maryland is reminiscent of an infamous case in New York City almost fifty years ago.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered outside an apartment building where she screamed, called for help and reportedly 38 people either heard or saw her murder, but did nothing to help, not even call the police. This very famous incident promoted a social psychology theory called, the bystander effect or bystander apathy.
Like Kitty, Jayna had listeners, two employees in an Apple Store next door. A surveillance video shows two Apple employees listening through the wall. Jane Svrzo, one of the two employees, quoted the words she heard that night. One voice said: “Talk to me. Don’t do this.” Later, she said another voice quietly said: “God help me. Please help me.”
The other employee told the police the reason that he did nothing when he heard the words “help me” was that he thought it was just a personal drama playing itself out as he listened in. This does not seem plausible in light of the 332 wounds found on Murray’s body and what must have been a loud interaction.
In case after case, witnesses to crimes have done nothing, freezing in their inability to help. Suppositions as to why this happens range from an assumption that someone else will respond, they would move if someone else moved first (called the first shift rule) or maybe no one is telling them what to do and they can’t think quickly.
In the world of cell phones and anonymous calls to 911, concern for their own safety is no longer real. What is real is that people walk away from these situations and very few are confronted with the outcome of their actions or the result of the situation in which they did nothing to help. And it isn’t against the law to not help.
Bullying on the school playground is usually our first encounter with this type of situation. I remember just plain not knowing what to do, until Billy Thatcher started in on my little brother. Then I punched him, but I do strongly remember the untrue feeling of helplessness when I first saw Billy tower over Wally Simms.
Brittney Norwood, Murray’s coworker, was convicted of killing Murray. She used an array of weapons, including a hammer, wrench, rope, knife and metal bars used to hold mannequins and merchandise.
Even after all of this, Douglas Wood, Norwood’s attorney, was attempting to establish that Norwood did not premediate the murder, and asked a telling question of Svrzo:
“If someone had yelled out ‘Help!’ you would have gone to help, right?”
“It’s hard to say what I would have done,” Svrzo said.
And there it is: the Bystander effect.
Due to the recent amount of attention placed on the bullying issue, I know first hand that many colleges and universities are now training their faculty and student leaders to intervene when they see someone who might be in trouble. Many times, lifesaving assistance is brought to victims of abuse, sexual violence, bullying, drinking issues, depressive behaviors, possible eating disorders and other problems long before individuals ask for help themselves.
Hopefully we will have more people make the simple 911 call on their cell, or even walk over and ask if someone needs help.
Photo credit: ehpien showing the memorial left at the shop after Jayna's murder.