As Jordan Neely struggled to free himself from a chokehold on the New York City subway earlier this month, there were the passengers who held him down and the passengers who watched.
Two men helped restrain Mr. Neely while Daniel Penny, an ex-Marine, held him on the floor of an F train that had stopped in a Manhattan station, a four-minute video from the May 1 episode.
About 10 passengers saw the three hold Mr Neely, 30, and become unconscious. A woman tried to walk around the group of people on the floor, but when she saw Mr. Neely swinging his legs, she bit her lip and stepped back, the video shows. Another woman typed on her phone, looked at Mr. Neely, then glanced through the subway doors. A man got on the train and told Mr. Penny, “You’re going to kill him.” He was not seen to intervene physically.
Under New York law, he didn’t have to.
Nationally, the murder of Mr Neely, who police said had behaved in a “hostile and erratic manner”, has sparked a wide political debate about vigilante behavior with many Democrats calling for the arrest of the Mr Penny, while conservative political figures called him a hero. Supporters donated nearly $2.5 million for his defense.
But in New York, one of the most populous cities in the country, the death has sparked a conversation about the moral duty that onlookers have to each other and to the most troubled among them.
The legal standard is clear: No U.S. state explicitly requires citizen aliens to physically intervene when they see an adult in danger, though some impose a duty to report wrongdoing and two set an ambiguous standard for providing assistance. The value of such legislation has been debated for years, according to those who study the intersection of ethics, the law, and bystanders—the phenomenon of being less likely to intervene when others are present.
In New York, where residents mingle in hallways, crowded sidewalks, and crowded subways, deciding how to respond to an uncomfortable situation is a daily dilemma.
There is an unspoken code in the city: “You don’t interfere, you can’t solve everyone’s problems. We learn to be very wary,” says Ken Levy, a professor at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center at Louisiana State University, who studies bystanders and has lived in New York for many years.
“The closest we can come to undoing a tragedy like this is to blame the people who did it and those who didn’t stop it,” he added.
Only one person was officially blamed. On Friday, Mr. Penny, 24, was charged with second-degree manslaughter. He has not yet been charged or entered a plea. The men who helped detain Mr. Neely have not been arrested or charged. It is unclear if the police know their identities.
In any case, the police questioned several bystanders after the incident, according to internal documents that have come into the hands of DailyExpertNews. The Manhattan Police Department and District Attorney have since issued public calls for more witnesses to come forward.
Some New York activists believe the passengers share some guilt. During a wave of heated protests near and in the Broadway-Lafayette Street subway station where the F train was standing when Mr. Penny strangled Mr. Neely, some protesters focused on those just watching.
Arrest “everyone who was on that train,” read one protester’s sign. “Love and protect your fellow man. Don’t move here if you’re afraid of your neighbors.” read another. It added: “If you see someone choking and attacking/killing another, you are complicit. You are responsible.”
Debate over whether and when bystanders should intervene intensified after the 1964 sexual assault and murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens. DailyExpertNews initially reported that 38 people witnessed the assault at various points but did nothing to help. (The Times has since acknowledged that the report “grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had observed.”)
The ubiquity of cameras has intensified demand. In 2019, at least 50 teens witnessed the murder of 16-year-old Khaseen Morris, who was stabbed outside a Long Island strip mall. Some filmed his murder on their phones but did nothing to help, a detective said at the time.
In a case like Mr. Neely’s, where a person’s behavior can be frightening, authorities say bystanders should act lightly. Mayor Eric Adams said on Tuesday that New Yorkers should call authorities “if someone does something extremely dangerous so that the appropriate personnel can respond. And that includes mental health professionals — and, in those cases where it’s needed, a law enforcement professional.
Yet there is not always mobile coverage in the metro. In the Neely case, at least two people alerted the train conductor and the conductor alerted the police, Juan Alberto Vazquez, a freelance journalist who filmed the four-minute video, said in an interview the day after the murder.
Some states have tried to steer citizens’ actions in the heat of the moment by passing so-called reporting requirements.
Twenty-nine — not counting New York — require bystanders to notify authorities of a person in danger, or to help as long as they don’t endanger themselves or others, said Zachary D. Kaufman, a professor of the law from Boston University and the University of Houston, which has compiled a worldwide database of such statutes.
Only two of those states have laws that can require spectators to physically intervene. Rhode Island and Vermont require “reasonable assistance” when a bystander sees a person subjected to “serious bodily harm,” Professor Kaufman added. Courts must interpret that language, he said.
Mr Neely’s death also raised the question of who needed help, the victim or the passengers.
A few witnesses on the F train told authorities that Mr. Penny and the two other men that Mr. Neely, protecting them from what they considered frightening and unpredictable behavior, police and Mr. Vazquez.
Mr. Neely yelled, “I have no food, I have no drink, I am fed up. I don’t mind going to prison and getting life. I’m ready to die,” said Mr. Vazquez.
“It was a very tense situation because you don’t know what he’s going to do next,” he added. “None of us thought,” he said, that Mr. Neely would die from the stranglehold.