Friday, November 4, 2011

Hindsight and speculation from the murder in Bethesda

A verdict was reached this week and Brittany Norwood was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of her coworker, Jayna Murray. This brings to a close the trial that has kept me riveted, disturbed, and deeply saddened. Ever since the first information was released with Norwood's claim of being a victim, I have been trying to wrap my head around what happened on the night of March 11, 2011 at an upscale yoga clothing store. It did not take long for the jury to reach a consensus that Norwood was guilty, but there are two more people who have been receiving a great deal of judgement and criticism: Two employees of the neighboring Apple store who submitted their testimony about what they heard the night of the murder.

It had been widely reported that there were employees next door who had heard the screams of young Ms. Norwood that night. This week during their testimony, more specifics came out and we learned that they heard not only screams for help, but specifically: "God help me. Please help me." The two employees listened on the other side of the wall and one person called the other one over to confirm that they both heard it. For reasons no one seems to be able to determine, neither of the employees called the police or took any action. They later learned with the rest of the world that the screams came from Jayna Murray, whose body was found with at least 322 wounds. By all accounts, this was a disturbing and brutal attack. It is impossible not to be haunted by the question - If those two employees had dialed 911 that night, would Jayna Murray still be alive? They may be asking themselves that question for the rest of their lives, but it will never change the reality. The police were not called that night. Jayna Murray was murdered. Brittany Norwood has been convicted. And hindsight will not heal the broken hearts of the victims family and loved ones. This is a sad, disturbing tragedy and my heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by this senseless act of violence and tragic loss.

When I say that my heart goes out to everyone, I mean that statement to be inclusive. Sadly, there are many people who have no sympathy, but only contempt for the two employees who heard Ms. Norwood's screams that fateful night. Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak asks, What's scarier: The slaying or the bystanders who did nothing? That is easy, Ms. Dvorak. The person who took the life of another person and lied to the police about being a victim to avoid being caught stealing. That is scarier. There is no question who the villain is here. Yet, if you read the comments after Ms. Dvorak's opinion piece, you will read hundreds of comments blaming the employees next door. Presumably by hundreds of people who would unquestioningly do the right thing in that circumstance.

It is easy to speculate what we would have done in that same situation, especially with the specific and graphic information we have received from the testimony. But we have not been in that position, and I hope that none of us will ever find ourselves in that quandary. I like to think that I would have called 911 after hearing those screams. In college, I lived next door to a couple who fought constantly. When my roommate and I heard things being thrown and glass breaking, we called the police more than once. I think it would be my natural reaction. But I don't know. I can say with near certainty that I would never have expected the reality - that the screams coming from the yoga store next door were the sounds of a woman being brutally murdered and stabbed 322 times. Even having read testimony and seen photographs of evidence, I still find this act of violence unbelievable. It is impossible to comprehend the events that took place that night. Yes, the employees should have phoned the police. For whatever reason, they made a terrible, horrible, tragic decision not to get involved. And yes, it is possible that they could have saved Jayna Murray's life that night. That is something they must come to terms with. But that is not the same as committing an act of murder.

As much as we would like to understand why the two people in question decided not to call the police that night, in the end it does not matter. If there is anything positive that can come out of this horrific event, it is the lesson to be learned by all of us. If, God forbid, you do ever find yourself next door to a suspicious altercation, think of Jayna Murray and her family and pick up the phone. I can only speculate what I would have done if I were in that position on the night of March 11th, but I can say with absolute certainty that if I should find myself in that position in the future, I know exactly what I will do. Two people exercised very poor judgment that night. Their inaction is not akin to murder, but they clearly made a mistake. Let us all learn from that mistake and not take anything for granted.


Paul said...

shades of Kitty Genovese

policomic said...

Dvorak's rhetorical question--which you quite correctly dismiss as ridiculous--strikes me as an example of a very common intellectual copout. It's not far removed from the political press's favorite knee-jerk response to any cynical, or even criminal behavior in that realm, e.g., "Yeah, well, 'both sides' are guilty of...." A lot of Americans seem eager to leap at this weird kind of moral equivalence, which paints everybody (except themselves) as "just as bad" as those who, you know, actually do bad things.

I sometimes wonder whether this is a legacy of Puritanism--there's a whiff of the idea of "original sin" there, and a perverse version of what Christ said about throwing the first stone. Anyway, it's a stupid tendency, and you're right to call it out.

Another thought, though: how does this incident compare with the stuff coming out about Penn State? To me, what the administrators (and possibly Paterno, but that's a little murkier) did--or failed to do--in response to what they were told about Jerry Sandusky seems far harder to excuse than what the Apple store employees did in this case. Here's a blog post about it; there's a pretty lively, angry debate in the comments about the culpability of the school, the program, the person who reported the incident, and Paterno going on in the comments:

Kathleen said...

"Moral equivalence" is a much more efficient way of explaining this idea of which is worse. Well said!

The Penn State allegations remind me more of Mark Foley and the Page program when he was a member of Congress. If I remember correctly, it was known about him and his relationships with underage Pages, so they made it so he was no longer in charge of the Page program and nothing more was said. These are disturbing because they show a pattern of enabling children to be harmed. There is also more at stake with Penn State and in Congress. People are worried about their reputations, they have concerns about losing financial support if something is discovered. That is disturbing on another level because it is hard to think of any reason other than selfishness and greed that would keep someone silent while allowing things like that to go on.