At about the time that Brittany Norwood was beating and stabbing Jayna Murray to death inside a store in a shopping mall, two employees in the Apple store next door heard sounds of the struggle coming through the wall.
The Apple Store employees were closing up for the night. One of them heard strange sounds from the other side of the wall: grunts, thuds, hysterical screams.
“Talk to me. Don’t do this,” a voice said. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”
“At that point, there was some more sounds, kind of, screams, yelps, yells,” Jana Svrzo, a manager at the Apple Store in Bethesda, said Friday, testifying on the third day of Brittany Norwood’s murder trial in the killing of her Lululemon Athletica co-worker.
The screams faded. Then Svrzo heard low, quiet tones.
“God help me,” Svrzo recalled hearing. “Please help me.”
After hearing all that, Svrzo and the other employee, Ricardo Rios, didn’t do anything about it. They neither called the police nor investigated it themselves.
I heard about all this from Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, who has this to say about it:
We need to agree on the proper treatment for people like this — self-centered, fearful slugs who can’t summon the fortitude and decency to help a fellow human being in peril even when it only requires a phone call. They are not quite criminals, but they are significant contributors to the evil in the world, the kind of citizens who accept the benefits of society but won’t lift a finger to contribute to it.
I don’t want to hire someone like Svrzo. I don’t want her as a neighbor or a friend. If I’m an independent service provider, I don’t want her business; if I’m a banker, I don’t think she’s trustworthy enough to get a loan. Her conduct is unacceptable in a cooperative society, and the one constructive thing she can do now is to serve as a living lesson to others that there are minimum standards to participating in civilization, and consequences of failing to meet them.
That would have been my reaction too, except that I’ve seen stories like this before, and I’ve learned to be skeptical. I can’t rule out evil as an explanation for her behavior; it’s entirely possible that Jana Svrzo is exactly the kind of psychopath who wouldn’t bother to help a woman being beaten to death. However, given what I’ve read so far, I feel the need to point out that you don’t have to make that assumption to explain what happened. Inaction that at first seems inexplicably callous sometimes turns out to be rather ordinarily human.
My guess is that the most critical factor in explaining her inaction is this: Until that day, I’m pretty sure that Jana Svrzo had never heard someone being beaten to death before. In fact, I’m willing to bet that she had never even seen a serious fight. And now we’re supposed to assume that she should have been able to figure out what was going on just by how it sounded? Through a wall?
That doesn’t sound possible. At least not unless she had reason to be familiar with the sounds of close-in personal brutality, perhaps from growing up in a violent family. Otherwise, all she heard was some strange sounds.
Well, then, what about the cry for help? According to the news story, she heard a variety of noises — variously described as grunts, squealing, and screams — and while this was going on, she heard someone say “Talk to me. Don’t do this,” and then “Talk to me. What’s going on?” And later she heard a different voice say “God help me,” and “Please help me.”
Again, knowing what we know now, it’s pretty obvious that something bad had happened. But it’s not hard to imagine other scenarios which Svrzo would have had to consider. She heard two people in a room, some noise, and one of them asked for help. Isn’t it possible that she was asking the other person for help? If you’ve never witnessed a violent crime before, what would be your first guess?
It’s really easy to misunderstand novel situations like this and make a dangerous mistake. About 20 years ago, I was in my kitchen, and I happened to glance out into the parking lot, where I noticed one of the other residents of our condo was kneeling next to her car, like she’d dropped her keys and they’d skittered underneath it. A few minutes later, I happened to glance out again, and she was still there, and I wondered what the heck that silly woman was up to…and then I put it together: She was elderly, she was overweight, it was winter, and the ground looked wet. She had slipped on the glare ice and couldn’t get up.
I didn’t realize what had happened the first time because she wasn’t lying down like an injured person — in fact, she wasn’t injured at all, she simply didn’t have the strength to pull herself up by her arms when her feet had no grip on the pavement. This was many years before I had to help take care of my parents (and my own knees still worked like they’re supposed to), so I’d had no experience with people who had infirmities. I had no way of recognizing what had happened from one brief glance.
Once I saw her again and realized she probably wasn’t in that position voluntarily, my wife and I went down to help her. She was fine. No big deal.
But had I not glanced down at her a second time, things might have ended less happily. She was down on the ground between two cars where it was hard for someone to see her, so she could have been stuck for long time in the freezing cold. She might even have died from exposure. And if I told people that I’d seen her there on the ground, they’d think I had let her die on purpose.
One of the things that affects how people react to a situation is their observation of how everyone else is reacting. I used to work across the street from a housing project, and whenever there was a loud bang, I’d look to the reactions of the residents to determine if it was a gunshot or something harmless, because they could tell the difference.
Svrzo called over co-worker Ricardo Rios, but according to his testimony, he couldn’t make out much of what he was hearing. So both of them heard something strange, but each of them saw that the other wasn’t too alarmed. They reinforced each other’s decision to do nothing.
If my wife had glanced out the window at our fallen neighbor and decided that she was just fiddling with something on her car, she might have laughed at my ridiculous concerns, and she might have convinced me. Later, when our neighbor’s lifeless body was discovered, we’d both look like callous psychopaths to people who hadn’t been there.
I think there’s a fair chance that Svrzo also thought that if something was really wrong, someone else would provide help. After all, how often do any of us find ourselves in a situation where we have the opportunity to save someone from serious injury or death? (In 47 years, it’s only happened to me once that I know of, and I’m not sure anything bad would have happened if I hadn’t been there.) The noises Svrzo was hearing were coming from another store in the mall. Surely if anything bad had happened, another person in the store would have helped, right?
There’s a saying — I’ve seen it used with respect to medical diagnostics: “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.”
The point is that when faced with a mystery, the most likely explanation is probably going the correct explanation. When a patient presents with flu-like symptoms, your best bet is to assume he has the flu, at least until you learn more.
Based on Svrzo’s actions, she obviously knew something wasn’t right, but what are the chances that anything in her life experience could have prepared her for this? You and I and everyone we know will probably go through our whole lives without hearing anyone being murdered. I’m assuming she’s no different in that respect. So on that terrible night, she heard some strange hoof beats, and she decided it was probably just horses. Because, really, what else could it be?
By now, some of you are probably sputtering that I’m just making stuff up. That I can’t possibly know what was going through her head. That I wasn’t there.
True enough. But then again, neither was anyone else who is criticizing her. They read the accounts of what happened, and they consider the facts, and they reach the only conclusion that makes sense: That she’s a callous narcissist.
What I’m trying to do is point out that there may be another way to fit the facts to the known range of human behavior. Of course, in doing so, I might be making the same horse-or-zebra mistake that I think Svrzo made. Psychopaths are pretty rare, but the ordinary failures of human cognition are not, so I’m guessing this is an ordinary failure. But I could be wrong.
I decided to write this post for a couple of reasons. First of all, there are a couple of lessons we could learn, the most important one being: If you need help from strangers in a strange situation, don’t just ask for help. Tell them you’ve been attacked and tell them what you want them to do. Be very specific. Not “Help me!” but “Help! I’ve been stabbed! Get me an ambulance! Somebody get me an ambulance!”
No, I’m not blaming the victim. Jayna Murray was severely wounded and probably had no idea anyone could hear her. I’m just saying that if you or I ever find ourselves in need of emergency medical help, it’s something we would do well to remember.
(Here’s another example of the kind of thing I’m talking about: Somewhere I read about an incident in which a doctor choked to death in the middle of a medical conference dinner, surrounded by dozens of other doctors. It sounds at first like gross incompetence, but really, how many doctors have ever seen someone actually choking to death before? This is why if you’re ever unable to breath because you’re choking on something, you should make sure you put your hands to your neck and make a face like you’re gagging, so people understand what you need.)
Another lesson is that if nobody else is taking charge of the situation, it may be that you’re the one who has to take charge. If my speculation here is correct, then Jana Svrzo is not the villain that some people have made her out to be. But if something different had triggered in her brain, if she had decided that, you know, maybe she should call the police, just to be safe…then Jana Svrzo might have been a hero. And Jayna Murray might still be alive.
Wouldn’t it be cool to be the hero? You can’t be one though, unless you take action.
Finally, Jack Marshall had this to say:
…the societal condemnation of individuals who allow another human being to be harmed when they have it in their power to summon assistance is appropriate, and should occur informally, like most enforcement of social behavioral norms.
Well, there’s some evidence that people may be taking things much further than Jack intends. I Googled Jana Svrzo, and I find a blocked Twitter page, a missing LinkedIn page, an inactive flickr stream, a missing Facebook page and, well, you get the idea. There seems to be only one Jana Svrzo out there, and she seems to be hiding from something.
I’m guessing that people are harassing her. If she’s the narcissistic bitch that some people think she is, then in a sense she has it coming. (Although, really, if she’s that narcissistic, she’s not going to be the least bit bothered by what other people think.)
But if she’s just an ordinary person who made an understandable mistake under terrible circumstances…let’s not make this any worse than it already is.