Murdered Within Earshot: Why Don’t We Respond?

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.


Related Stories:

Chinese Toddler Run Over and Ignored by Bystanders

Beating Children in the Name of God

Are The Doors Locked in the Factory Making YOUR Shirts?


Photo credit: ehpien showing the memorial left at the shop after Jayna's murder.


Jennifer Smith
Jennifer Smith6 years ago

Happened to me first hand when I was in grade 6. My brother and I took the bus home from school, and we were walking. Some bullies from either the school near us, or the bus, I don't remember which, started following and screaming things at us. One of them went to take a punch at my brother and I turned, and yelled at him to go get help.

I was screaming for help, trying to hold these two older girls off, getting my hair torn out, and punched, but I knew if I didn't stand in their way they'd go after my younger brother. Finally a woman noticed what was going on, and threatened to call the police if they didn't back off, and they ran off. She walked me home, quite worried about how injured I could be, as I had hair everywhere they'd torn out. Thankfully other then bruises and a lot of lost hair there wasn't any major damage. But if that woman hadn't stepped in, it could have been much worse.

And if I hadn't stepped in to protect my brother I'm scared to think what could have happened, as these girls were easily twice his size.

Jane R.
Jane R6 years ago

So sad that most people would not help out someone crying out for help. I feel the main reason is because they are afraid they will get hurt or killed. I understand their fear, but I'd have to help in any way I could. Not even calling 911 is something I can't comprehend. It wouldn't put you in danger but could save a life!!

tiffany t.
tiffany t6 years ago

Reminds me of the book "Terrible Things" by Eve Bunting

Shell S.
Shelli S6 years ago

Treat others, like you would want to be treated. If you don't help someone, who is in need of help..One day, you just might be in their shoes and need the exact same help, that you denied them or someone else..and they don't help. The common sense compassion, for one another and animals, is severely lacking.

Robert Hardy
Robert Hardy6 years ago

As we continue to be separated from one another by the increasing personalization of lifestyle...the focus on self and abandonment of community through electronic devices, fear of interaction and strong locks...we all become potential victims.... if not from other, then from ourselves.

Vicky K.
Vicky K6 years ago

My sentiments exactly Marjaana V.

Rebecca S.
Rebecca S6 years ago

it's incredible how the bystander effect works and all of a sudden no one cares..

Marjaana V.
marjaana v6 years ago

I AM SICK OF NOT BEING ABLE TO SEND STARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

take this comment f. ex. by mercedes: "Rehearse it in your mind until it becomes automatic." brilliant in its simplicity!

that makes so much sense! use it! rehearse it!

it is especially important to me, as i'm the opposite of a frozen bystander: i'm the one who'll leap into action come hell or high water - and then think "ooooh shiiit... now i've done it!" i'm getting a bit long in the tooth for heroics, thinking before acting would not be amiss!

my daughter got a broken arm when she stopped a teen from being thrown down 17 flights in an apartment stairwell. kid's inherited that stubborn "not on my shift you bloody well won't!" attitude, which - granted - has bothered me, but thus far it's all good.

it's also most like caused by ADD and a quick temper i suppose...? but no. i'll not watch anyone getting hurt and not respond. ever!

[and why does the stupid URL to this page pop up every time you copy and paste? i AM on this page and so are everybody else!]

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y6 years ago

Hard to understand why they didn't dial 911. It takes no effort and no risk.

Darlene B.
Darlene W6 years ago

I could not imagine not checking on someone if they cried for help. If you are alone and frightened get someone to go with you. How would you feel if you cried for 'help' and no one responded?