Bystander does not equal innocence: California needs a “Bad Samaritan” law to protect all minors under 18

November 20, 2009 — by Christine Bancroft and Denise Lin

In a famous 1964 incident, a New York city bartender named Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was walking home late one night after a day’s work when she was attacked by a man. She screamed, pleading nearby bystanders for help, but the screams seemed to fall on deaf ears; the bystanders stood idly, and later, Genovese’s attacker came back to finish the job. Her murder—and bystanders’ indifference to her pleas—became a national outrage and the source of years of academic study.

A similarly vicious attack occurred at Richmond High School Oct. 24, when a 15-year-old girl was raped and beaten by a group of young men and boys after her Homecoming dance. As many as 20 spectators watched and did nothing to aid her, despite the presence of police on campus performing routine drug and alcohol searches. The attack on the unnamed victim may have lasted anywhere from one to two hours, and still no one called 911 until around midnight that evening. Seven suspects, some as young as 15 and 16, have been taken into custody.

The spectators’ disturbing lack of action in both the Genovese case and Richmond attack can be described by a social psychological phenomenon called the “bystander effect.” Research shows that the more “spectators” witness a crime, the less likely that one will report it or attempt to intervene. Psychologists say this occurs because bystanders elude the responsibility in a crowd, believing that someone else will or already has taken the initiative to contact the authorities or medical services to help.

A crime as horrific as the Richmond gang rape becomes even more appalling when it becomes clear that the victim’s peers did nothing to help her—and even egged on her attackers—as this abuse persisted.

Anti-bullying campaigns in schools have drilled the valuable lesson into students that there are two kinds of bullies: those who directly harm others and those who observe crime or abuse but fail to act. It can be argued that the students at the Richmond High campus were an escalated, more horrific equivalent of this second type of bully.

Authorities are attempting to track down many of the witnesses of the attack who did not come forward. But it is unlikely that they will be prosecuted due to a law created in 2000 that only makes not reporting a sex crime illegal if the victim is under 14. The law is named after 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson, a child who was kidnapped from a casino by an 18-year-old high school student and was raped and murdered, while several onlookers did nothing to help her, a situation unsettlingly similar to the Richmond case.

These laws that punish witnesses who do not report crimes to police are called “Bad Samaritan” laws, as opposed to “Good Samaritan” laws, which protect people who do intervene, or provide first aid to victims until they can be relieved by authorities. Of course, the Richmond High students who did not stop the attack or contact police will most likely dodge any legal charges because the victim is 15, and the Iverson law applies to victims up to age 14.

If the Sherrice Iverson law had been extended to protect all minors 18 or younger, then the girl at Richmond High might have been rescued sooner, more of her attackers might have been arrested on scene or later on with the aid of more evidence and those who stood by and allowed the horrific crime to occur would have to face serious penalties.

Besides extending the Iverson law to protect all victims of sexual or violent crimes who are at or under 18, the state should make sure more schools teach students the importance of taking the initiative in dangerous circumstances to protect themselves and prevent such crimes from occurring.

Even if an onlooker may not have directly participated in the attack, that does not mean he or she is innocent. By failing to intervene, the bystanders at Richmond High School allowed the course of unrestrained brutality to run wild at the expense of a defenseless, 15-year-old girl.

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