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Article: Murder Leads to New Legislation

By Elaine Cassel

In a Las Vegas hotel-casino over Memorial Day Weekend, 1997, Jeremy Strohmeyer, then 19 years old, enticed 7-year-old Sherrice Iverson, who was playing with her older brother in a casino arcade while their father gambled, into the men's rest room. Then, with his friend, David Cash, a University of California, Berkeley student, looking on from an adjoining stall, Strohmeyer sexually assaulted and murdered the little girl. Cash did nothing to stop it nor did he report the crime to the police, omissions which have prompted some legislatures to propose a law requiring people to help others in trouble.

Now that Jeremy Strohmeyer has been sentenced to four life prison terms, without possibility of parole, public attention is focused on the actions of Strohmeyer's friend, David Cash. Cash reasoned that he thought Strohmeyer and Sherrice were "playing," and then when it was too late to do anything, he had no duty to report a crime (which is, in fact, the case). He also said the thought had crossed his mind that he could sell his story for "a couple of million" (reported in the Las Vegas Sun Capital, September 6, 1998). Fellow Berkeley students have called for his expulsion, others have called for his arrest (Nevada authorities say they have no basis to charge him), and legislators in various states are considering passage of criminal laws that would punish people like Cash for refusing to intervene.

Cash's failure to intervene seems rooted in his character. He appears to be as lacking in conscience and empathy as Strohmeyer, indicating a marked failure to achieve these important developmental stages in childhood. They both may be diagnosable with antisocial personality disorder. But aside from someone like Cash, who would appear as morally culpable as his friend, social psychologists are greatly interested in the failure of otherwise law-abiding, good citizens to intervene when someone is in trouble, a concept known as the bystander effect. Some people do not intervene because they think others will do so, a concept social psychologists call diffusion of responsibility. Others don't intervene for fear of liability for doing so. What if they try to help and make matters worse?

Almost all states have so-called Good Samaritan Laws that protect innocent bystanders from being held liable for any mishap when they try to save someone. But some legislatures are trying to pass another version of a such a law, one that would require people to help and make it a crime if they did not render assistance in some situations.

In 1996, The Los Angeles Times asked its readers what they thought about such a law. Here were the questions and a summary of the responses.

1. Do you think a law like this is a good idea?
2. Do you think a law like this could be an infringement on people's rights?
3. Do you feel legislation such as this would affect how people behave in these situations?
4. Do we have a moral obligation to get involved?
5. If you saw someone being beaten or dragged to his or her death, what do you think your level of involvement would be? Choose one of the following: Physical intervention, enlisting help of onlookers, calling authorities, offering assistance, not getting involved at all.

Fifty-nine percent thought that such a law was not a good idea, with 72 percent agreeing that it would be an infringement of personal rights. Fifty-four percent did not think that a law would cause people to help if they would not otherwise do so, but 18 percent were unsure. (This would likely depend upon the penalties for violating the law). However, 81 percent believed that they had a moral duty to get involved, and most would either physically intervene (41 percent) or call authorities (33 percent).

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