The jury watched a surveillance video from the Apple Store, where two employees stood next to a wall adjoining Lululemon and listened. In court, Jana Svrzo, one of the two, quoted the words she heard that night. One voice said: “Talk to me. Don’t do this.” Later, another quietly said: “God help me. Please help me.”
The video shows the two employees eventually returning to work. The other employee, Ricardo Rios, told a detective that he thought the noise was “drama,” not violence. The store’s security guard didn’t hear anything; he was listening to his iPod. No one called the police.
The testimony enraged many people, who wondered how anyone could hear “help me” and not jump into action. On Twitter, there were calls for the Apple employees to also be charged in Murray’s death.
The trial is over, but one question remains: How could any human ignore a plea for help?
It’s a question I faced all too closely three years ago, in a situation far less tragic than Murray’s case but far more common. I was walking home late on a Saturday night in Adams Morgan. The sidewalks were dotted with a few others, and a small crowd had gathered in a parking lot next to a church on Kalorama Road. I didn’t feel alone, so I didn’t worry when three teenagers walked over to me.
They surrounded me, grabbing me in ways that would leave bruises. I shouted at them to leave me alone. One pulled at my purse, but I didn’t let go. I held my ground because so many people were staring. At any moment, I knew someone would shout, “Hey, leave her alone,” and it would be over. But no one did.
Then a punch. A fist with a ring cut a gash along my ear. I fell to the ground. The teenagers walked away. Although there were at least a dozen people near me that night, I had never felt so alone.
For decades, psychologists have been studying the “bystander effect,” a theory that people are less likely to intervene during an emergency if others are around. It stems from the case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964 outside a Queens apartment building; dozens of people heard her struggle, but no one intervened. Back then, the emergency number 911 had not debuted yet, let alone cellphones to text tips to police. Although technology has changed dramatically in nearly 50 years, human nature has not.
In case after case, witnesses to crimes have frozen in place. Their gut may signal that something is wrong, but they do nothing. Maybe they do not act because no one around them is doing so. Maybe they assume that someone else will respond. Maybe they’re stopped by a concern for their own safety.