When news first emerged that a woman had been raped on a busy train in Philadelphia last week, it caught the attention and outrage of the entire nation because Police said the onlookers did nothing to interfere. The police even said that some civilians filmed the attack.
Now, the district attorney on the case is denying that characterization.
In a press conference on Thursday, Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stolsteimer said it was not true that people were sitting on the train and “saw this transpire and took video of it to their own satisfaction.”
Stolstimer said witnesses at the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority should come forward to share information about what they saw. He also emphasized that it is not against the law to see and not interfere with crime in Pennsylvania. Stollsteimer insisted that anyone who witnessed the attack would not be prosecuted.
The district attorney painted a picture instead of a “less” crowded train, in which passengers boarded and disembarked during conversations between the suspect and the victim, and eventually rape. He said people getting on and off the train might not know what was happening at any point and they were witnessing a rape.
He admitted that there were two people who were believed to have filmed at least part of the incident, and that he has video of a witness. Stolsteimer also said that CCTV footage from SEPTA showed the entire attack and would be convincing for the prosecution of the case.
The suspect, 35-year-old Fiston Ngoy, allegedly harassed the woman, held her and eventually raped her through more than two dozen train stops last week, officials said. SEPTA officials also said in a news conference earlier this week that officers responded within three minutes to the only 911 call they received from an off-duty transportation worker.
Police said they believe no one called the officers, and they were investigating whether any witnesses may have recorded the incident. Officials said they were upset by the lack of intervention, claiming that people had witnessed the attack.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. “There were people watching this act with phones in hand,” Nestel said at a news conference on Monday. “People were holding their phones in the direction of this woman being attacked.”
“In my opinion, a lot of people should have intervened. Somebody should have done something,” Upper Darby Police Department Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It tells where we are in society and who will allow something like this to happen. So it’s disturbing.”
Bernhardt stood with Stolstimer as the top prosecutor denied the narrative that witnesses had been “ruthlessly recorded”.
“The people in this area, in my experience, are not human beings so dehumanizing and harsh as to just sit there watching it happen and videotape it, as one journalist put it today, ‘for their own personal enjoyment,'” Stolsteimer he said.
He said people are like a woman who, in a separate incident on Wednesday night involving sexual assault at Septa Stop, intervened to help the victim when she shouted for help.
“When people need help, people stand up and help,” he said.
Some have compared the police and media’s initial response to the famous 1964 murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese. Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender, was stabbed to death outside his New York City apartment.
The New York Times published a story based on early police accounts, claiming that 38 people witnessed the attack and did nothing, prompting research into the “compulsive effect”. The matter has been featured in psychology textbooks for decades.
However, later reporting revealed that the numbers were exaggerated, and there was evidence that some people had called the police or tried to help.
The same can happen on the Philadelphia train. Stollstemmer did not disclose the number of people on the train and may have witnessed some or all of the attacks. He said Thursday that his priority is to reassure witnesses that he will not be prosecuted, and encourage them to come forward to share his account.
SEPTA declined Granthshala’s request to view surveillance footage of the October 13 attack “due to an ongoing criminal investigation”.