The Mythical ‘Bystander Effect’ Haunts a Philadelphia Rape Case

Print More
picpicture of empty subway car

Photo by Anna Corso/Billy Penn via WHYY

Upper Darby borders West Philadelphia. If you have ever driven through Upper Darby, you know it is difficult to tell where West Philly ends and Upper Darby begins. In fact, Upper Darby is home to the 69th Street Station, a hub for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)—a regional public transport operation that provides regular service for four million people in southeast Pennsylvania.

Just over a month ago, as the “EL” commuter train was heading toward the 69th Street Station, a shocking crime occurred in the public area of a train car: a woman was raped.  A few days after the crime, Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt charged that other train passengers who witnessed the assault didn’t intervene.

In a comment that quickly made national headlines, he said, “I’m appalled by those who did nothing to help this woman.”

Early news reports appeared to corroborate the charge, suggesting that there were dozens of people who witnessed the eight-minute assault.  While there were not “dozens of people” in the car at the time, as Bernhardt acknowledged, he nevertheless argued there were enough that, “collectively, they could have gotten together and done something.”

He added that investigators had received unconfirmed reports of some passengers recording the attack on their cellphones.

Within a few days of the attack in Upper Darby, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer revealed, after a review of security camera footage from the train car, that the version of the story that had been circulating for days “is simply not true—it did not happen.”

Flashback to a 60-Year-Old Crime

The hideous nature of the crime and the suggestion that bystanders just sat and watched brought to mind the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese.

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, was stabbed outside her apartment building in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York.

Genovese was returning home from work at around 2:30 a.m. when she was approached by a man with a knife. Genovese ran toward her apartment building, and the man grabbed her and stabbed her while she screamed.

A neighbor yelled out the window and the attacker temporarily fled. Genovese, seriously injured, crawled to the rear of her apartment building, out of the view of any possible witnesses. Ten minutes later, her attacker returned, stabbed her again, raped her, and stole her money.

A couple of weeks later, The New York Times ran an article with the headline “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call The Police,” alleging that 37 witnesses saw or heard the attack, and that none of them called the police or came to her aid.

Like the Philadelphia case, that turned out to be untrue.

In 2004, after Kitty Genovese had faded from the memory of most people, the inaccurate and sensationalistic nature of the reporting of her murder was acknowledged by the Times.

But what had taken America more than 40 years to learn about the rape and murder of Genovese, we learned in only a few days after the SEPTA subway rape

They were both, at best, an exaggeration—and, at worst, a flat-out lie.

How could the reports of two crimes separated by about 115 miles and nearly 60 years get it so wrong?

The Bystander Effect

The New York Times coverage had been criticized for years for numerous factual errors and for contriving a social phenomenon to sell papers. The phenomenon, called the Bystander Effect, attempts to explain why someone witnessing a crime would not help the victim.

The coverage of the incident by the Times remains a stain on the media—fodder for those who claim mainstream news is “fake news.”  On the other hand, the source of the SEPTA rape “lie” wasn’t some cub reporter trying to get a byline or a headline; it was a person entrusted with the safety and security of the community.

The superintendent of police exaggerated the circumstances of a crime—attempting to paint a picture of moral bankruptcy in the very community he swore to protect.

Although DA Stollsteimer methodically punctured every part of the passive-bystander argument put forward by the superintendent—including, he said, the claim that some witnesses took videos of the incident “for their own gratification”— the damage is already done.

Increasingly, people do not know who to believe or who to trust.

Matt Mangino

Matthew T. Mangino

We hear from what is supposed to be a trusted law enforcement figure that you can’t rely on your neighbors in a neighborhood riddled with crime, only to learn that the “trusted” figure lied, possibly to promote some misguided law enforcement agenda.

Mistruths continue to be components of a society in a perpetual state of suspicion and mistrust.

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 30, the Associated Press reported that a man accused of raping a woman on a Philadelphia commuter train was ordered held for trial. The suspect, Fiston Ngoy, claimed the sexual encounter was consensual.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. P.C. and the former district attorney of Lawrence County, PA.   He is the author of The Executioner’s Toll. You can follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino or contact him at mmangino@lgkg.com) 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *