Witness to Murder: Out of Fear, Many Americans Choose to Keep Silent : Crime: Society seems to be losing its ability to care. But experts say the biggest deterrent to speaking out is the threat of getting hurt by getting involved.
The woman had just left a restaurant and was driving down a narrow city street when the car ahead stopped. Three men jumped from the side of a building, dragged a passenger from the car and shot him.
Frozen in terror, the woman watched the men flee past her car, with guns still drawn. She assumes they were drug dealers, but she doesn’t care to know. And she’s not talking to police.
“If I come forward, they are just going to kill me,” said the woman, who is connected with a prominent and influential figure in the Boston area. “Why would I lose my life over a drug matter?”
She’s not alone in her dilemma.
America has become a nation of reluctant witnesses, many experts say, with too many people not so far removed from those New York neighbors of Kitty Genovese who shocked a nation in 1967 by failing to answer her screams as she was stalked and fatally stabbed in three separate attacks.
“It’s becoming a much more anonymous society, a much more uncaring society,” said Gilbert Geis, a retired professor of criminology at UC Irvine.
No one keeps any real scientific measure of civic isolation, but the anecdotal evidence is plentiful:
* Last year in Portland, Me., a man was beaten to death outside a tavern, and police say dozens of customers came outside to watch and didn’t offer assistance until it was too late.
* In a community outside San Francisco, a group of students kept quiet when a friend killed his girlfriend and showed them the body. The 1981 case became the basis for the movie “River’s Edge.”
* Earlier this year in Chicago, only one motorist at a busy intersection got out of his car to help when a jogger slumped onto the roadway with stab wounds. The victim’s lone rescuer was a cab driver whose own son was beaten to death by several men in front of bystanders who wouldn’t intervene.
There have been some sexual assaults that occurred right in front of witnesses, such as the notorious 1983 pool table rape in New Bedford, Mass., and a case last year in San Diego, where police said a woman was raped while several other men watched.
William O’Malley, district attorney for Plymouth County, Mass., and other veterans of law enforcement say the biggest deterrent to speaking out is fear of getting hurt by getting involved.
Television shows, such as “America’s Most Wanted” and “Prime Suspect” have produced tips on suspects. But that is often done through remote and relatively safe contact, often just a phone call telling authorities about the sighting of a suspect.
O’Malley and others say the tips are not as forthcoming when people might have to become personally involved.
In western Massachusetts, the ex-wife of Kenneth Mitchell knew for three years that he had murdered a college student in a random act of rage at a shopping mall.
Through intense publicity and the cries of anguish of the family and friends of the victim, she kept quiet, as did her current husband. Mitchell, who revealed the tale to her in a chance meeting, threatened to kill the couple if they spoke out. They didn’t.
“I don’t think it’s because they didn’t care,” said State Police Trooper Kevin Murphy, the investigator who cracked the case just before Mitchell confessed the crime in a suicide note. “I think everybody cares. They just make a personal assessment of what the repercussions might be.”
On the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service has safeguarded about 13,000 witnesses and their families through a witness protection program begun in 1971. Witnesses must take a new identity and move far from their former homes, giving up old friends and sometimes even families.
“In that time, we’ve never lost anyone who stayed in the program,” said Bill Licatovich, a spokesman for the Marshals Service in Washington, D.C. But, he added: “There have been those who dropped out and were killed.”
The government has used the program to occasionally crack the organized crime code of silence, known as “omerta, " producing witnesses such as Sammy (The Bull) Gravano, an ex-mobster who helped convict John Gotti last year.
There is far less protection for those who might be called as witnesses in state courts.
“Law enforcement can give someone temporary protection. But that doesn’t protect the person from gang retribution, for instance,” said Dewey R. Stokes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “If a local officer wants to get someone into a program, they have to find a federal violation. It’s a damn shame.”
In Los Angeles, so many witnesses have been frightened out of testifying against street gangs--or killed for doing so--that the county district attorney’s office in the 1980s started a witness protection program.
The program is limited in scope, providing witnesses only with enough money to move to another part of the city and pay a security deposit. But officials say the program helps witnesses threatened by street gangs that seldom travel far outside their own turf.
“We’ve had witnesses killed here. It’s a fact of life,” said Sandy Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. “People are afraid to testify. . . . They know if they show up for that preliminary hearing, they’re dead meat.”
Authorities are sympathetic to the potential witnesses, noting that fear has risen with the increase in violent crime.
The FBI says there were more than 1.9 million reports of violent crime in 1991, including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. That’s more than six times higher than the number 30 years earlier, although some of the increase is attributed to better reporting.
Even for witnesses in the protection program, Gibbons said, testifying is “terribly frightening.”
Of course, there are examples of people taking heroic actions to aid others, such as the case of the people who saved Reginald Denny, the truck driver who was beaten in the Los Angeles riots last year.
Other citizens work more quietly to prevent crime, participating in neighborhood watch groups to keep an eye on each other’s property. Amitai Etzioni, a George Washington University professor and author of a new book, “The Spirit of Community,” said such groups are forming in response to a decaying social fabric.
“We have to restore community,” said Etzioni, founder of what he terms a “communitarian” movement, which calls on Americans to support values that are morally compelling and to be responsive to their neighbors.
Recent studies indicate he has a lot of convincing to do.
Harold Takooshian, a sociologist at Fordham University in New York, tested how pedestrians would respond if they saw someone trying to break into a car. The vast majority did nothing, and some even offered to help--perhaps in the mistaken notion that the person had locked himself out of his car.
“Criminals count on people not doing anything,” he said.
In another study, a Penn State University psychology professor, Lance Shotland, staged a man attacking a woman in public. In cases where the woman would scream, “Get away, I don’t know you,” most people would intervene. But when the woman screamed, “Get away, I don’t know why I married you,” most people wouldn’t help.
That points to one factor that influences people--the ambiguity of the situation. In some cases, Shotland and others say, those who witness crimes are caught off guard and aren’t sure what they’ve seen and whether they should intervene.
Such feelings of uncertainty can be magnified in a group situation, where bystanders tend to wait to see if someone else will respond. In fact, experts say one of the worst places to expect help is in front of a crowd.
“There is a diffusion of responsibility, a diffusion of blame,” said Ervin Staub, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “If one gets blamed for not intervening, other people can be blamed as well.”
David Rosenhan, a professor of psychology and law at Stanford University, said a prerequisite for getting involved is feeling a relationship to the crime victim. In that sense, he said, it’s a misnomer to talk about reporting crimes.
“Nobody reports crimes,” he said. “People either protect or don’t protect each other.”
That philosophy has figured into some intriguing cases in which people knew about murders but kept mum.
There has been a fair number of them in urban ethnic neighborhoods, where in addition to fear of reprisal, the social stigma of “squealing” is strong enough to keep people quiet.
In a Providence, R.I., neighborhood known for residents with organized crime connections, the 1982 murder of a man who was hit by gunfire in a tavern has gone unsolved, although some customers witnessed the shooting. Last year, a prime suspect in that murder was gunned down--again in front of witnesses--but no arrests were made.
Such silences also have arisen suddenly, such as in Skidmore, Mo., a small town where Ken Rex McElroy, reviled as a bully and a scoundrel, was shot to death in 1981 in front of dozens of people.
No one admitted seeing the killer, and some residents said McElroy deserved his fate.
The victim’s lawyer, Gene McFadin, said he believes some people might have felt a duty to come forward but were afraid “due to the hostility of their peers.”
In Boston, there was, and will long be, the Charles Stuart murder hoax. Stuart had fooled almost everyone into believing that he and his pregnant wife, Carol, were shot by a mugger after they left a birthing class in October, 1989.
At least two of Stuart’s brothers knew he probably was involved in some way with the crime. And after authorities learned the truth, leading Stuart to commit an apparent suicide on Jan. 4, 1990, some people in his hometown of Revere said word had been around for weeks that he was involved. No one spoke out.