The bystander effect and online social networking

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders.

With millions of Internet users communicating through social network environments everyday, the bystander theory may not remain a valid theory for online social networking.  Because people are joining social networking communities to make friends, these people are more inclined to come to the aid of a friend or distant contact if personal emergency were discovered. The challenge that we face online is how millions of nonprofessionally trained folks determine the validity of a “call for help”, and how do these users know if someone else has acted on a potentially serious “call for help”. We could have a “Digg” format where users responding to an apparent serious communication click a “helped” button making visible their response to help someone.

Does the Bystander Rule apply to Internet users? Is it time for the formalization (accountability) of “calls for help” on the Internet?

Because the social networking communities are open to all people that have a computer and Internet connection, it serves as a vehicle for expressing an individuals feelings on a regular and real-time basis. By allowing an online community member to interact with other members virtually, they can freely express thoughts and feelings they may not normally share when in a face to face situation off line. It’s like speaking with your psychologist or psychiatrist instead of a family member or friend.

A possible approach suggested by the American Psychologist to negate the bystander effect, is to pick a specific person in the crowd to ask for help rather than appealing to the larger group. For example, point directly to a specific bystander and give the person a specific task such as, “you in the red shirt, dial 911.” This clarifies the situation and places the responsibility directly on a specific person instead of allowing it to diffuse.

To counter a potential Internet bystander affect do we need a “First Responder” appointed within each social networking community? The Internet is a growing exponentially, and becoming a more formalized and less unstructured. In the future there may be increasing need for a specific point of contact in social networking communities to defuse emergency situations; a “First Responder” could be localized for language purposes on a country to country basis.

Does the bystander rule apply to online social networking communities? It may be too soon to tell, but one can assume that because a community member is not physically near the person in need of help, and because they joined a community to build and maintain relationships, the likely hood of a bystander (member) helping in a crises situation may increase as apposed to decrease.

In the future, we may see social networking environments such as FaceBook, MySpace, or Twitter employing a first level “call for help” support option within its virtual environment, or a team of around-the-clock psychologists’ on duty to review incoming “calls for help.” If this model takes affect, we may also be asked to sign a waiver that relinquishes responsibility on the part of the social networking company, so it is not responsible for interventions that do not reach authorities, or become neutralized in a timely manner.

Mental health counseling may be incorporated into the next evolution of the social networking community –

A further step in this direction may be a new social networking business model, one supporting psychotherapy counseling professionals and social networking communities that offer a “pay as you go” counseling service to its online community members. With millions of members sharing their daily woes online, this idea could be effective and profitable, and there would be no shortage of clients.

The following are internet and non internet related “call for help” situations, where some people initiated a “call for help,” and others did not.

Call for help via the internet

NPR Linton Weeks) -January 8, 2009 • Alarm bells went off Sunday night for readers of a Twitter message by a woman known on the Web as Thordora. She writes a “mommy blog” — Spin Me I Pulsate — about the triumphs and tribulations of domesticity. In a tweet, Thordora asked, “If I smother my 3 year old, who will NOT GO TO F****** SLEEP, is it REALLY a crime?”

Over the next two hours, a new kind of Web story unfolded — including a real-world visit by police to check the child’s safety. Someone plugged in to the network of bloggers and Twitter apparently knew the identity of Thordora and called the police in her locale. Thordora explained her side of the story on her blog. She was tired, she wrote, and she had “yelled, threatened and cajoled” her 3-year-old daughter to get into bed. At 11 p.m. the police came to her house. Thordora opened the door to her daughter’s bedroom and showed the sleeping child to the police to prove her child was OK. “So lesson learned ladies,” Thordora wrote. “Don’t do any venting in public. Don’t network. Don’t show anything LESS than perfect bliss…”

Suicide in front of a Webcam:

When Abraham Biggs committed suicide in front of a Webcam in November 08, some internet users texted messages egging him on.

Online intervention:

Ayelet Waldman, also a bipolar mother, received help and encouragement from people on the Internet several years ago when she admitted to suicidal tendencies in her blog. She has written a book about the experience called Bad Mother.

In an interview with NPR in December (2008), Waldman said, “I think we’re just beginning to understand how we can participate in something that is so widespread and in such a community, while at the same time being ourselves in a very intimate place. I mean, you’re home or at the office, you’re also — you are participating in a community that in many cases is much larger than your regular live-action community.”

Stanford’s Professor Fogg says, “My students tell me — and I’m starting to notice — that people use FaceBook as a ‘call for help’ quite frequently.” So what is the responsibility of someone who reads an alarming blog entry or e-mail or tweet like Thordora’s? “I would have done something,” says Fogg. “For one thing, she was talking about a child. We all feel a responsibility toward children. It makes everyone perk up. If she were to get drunk and go out driving, that would be different. Yes, it would be a concern to people — and dangerous on the road — but not in the same way.” But, suggests, in this case, “I would turn the coin over. I would tell her if she is going to post this kind of writing online, she needs to accept the fact that people will misinterpret it.” The responsibility rests on the blogger, the Twitterer, Fogg states. He suggests that people will take action and help others who sound like they are in trouble — on or off the internet. “That’s just normal human behavior.”
The Bystander Rule in the non Web space:

San Francisco Chronicle – TORRANCE, Calif. (AP) 2008

A dozen bystanders rushed in to help a 70-year-old man after he stumbled leaving a Southern California bank, causing thousands of dollars to scatter in the wind. Ludwig Geier says hundreds of bills were “gone in no time,” flying through the air and littering the First National Bank’s parking lot in Torrance on Monday. Almost immediately, about a dozen bystanders rushed in to help. The machine shop owner says about 96 percent of the money was found. Geier says he’s going to pray for those good Samaritans, adding, “If I could get them together, I’d buy them dinner and drinks.”

Wichita, Kan. (AP):

As stabbing victim LaShanda Calloway lay dying on the floor of a convenience store, five shoppers, including one who stopped to take a picture of her with a cell phone, stepped over the woman, police said. The June 23 situation, captured on the store’s surveillance video, got scant news coverage until a columnist for The Wichita Eagle disclosed the existence of the video and its contents Tuesday. Police have refused to release the video, saying it is part of their investigation.

“It was tragic to watch,” police spokesman Gordon Bassham said Tuesday. “The fact that people were more interested in taking a picture with a cell phone and shopping for snacks rather than helping this innocent young woman is, frankly, revolting.”

The woman was stabbed during an altercation that was not part of a robbery, Bassham said. It took about two minutes for someone to call 911, he said. Calloway , 27, died later at a hospital. The district attorney’s office will have to decide whether any of the shoppers could be charged, Bassham said. It was uncertain what law, if any, would be applicable. A state statute for failure to render aid refers only to victims of a car accident.

Eagle columnist Mark McCormick told The Associated Press, he learned about the video when he called Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams. He called to ask about a phone call he had received from a reader. The reader was complaining about a Police Department policy that requires emergency medical personnel to wait until police secure a crime scene before rendering aid. McCormick said Williams then unloaded on him about the shoppers in the stabbing case.”This is just appalling,” Williams told the newspaper. “I could continue shopping and not render aid and then take time out to take a picture? That’s crazy. What happened to our respect for life?”

ABC News LAUREN COX and RADHA CHITALE on June 6, 2008 reported

Yesterday’s release of surveillance video depicting a 78-year-old hit-and-run victim lying in the street but ignored by onlookers and motorists has sparked a public debate over the humanity and the responsibility of the city’s residents. Police release surveillance video of the crime in hopes of catching the driver.

Hartford, Conn., Mayor Eddie A. Perez announced his disgust Thursday after watching the footage, showing several cars swerving to avoid Angle Arce Torres, who was lying paralyzed and bleeding from the head. But while Perez calls such negligence “horrific,” those onlookers may not know how to act in such a medical emergency, or why their instincts tell them to stay put. Waiting in the Wings City officials told the Hartford Courant that four people called 911 to report last Friday’s incident — that may not always be enough in an emergency situation.

Tragically, some experts say the public’s inaction is a classic social occurrence. “It’s kind of a textbook case of bystander phenomenon,” says John Darley, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University.

Reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations –

There are many reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations, but social psychologists have focused most of their attention on two major elements. Wikipedia experts suggest that according to a basic principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance or social proof. The other major obstacle to intervention is known as diffusion of responsibility.  This occurs when observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so each person feels less responsible and refrains from doing anything.

The case of Kitty Genovese is the most famous example of the bystander effect. It is also the case that originally stimulated social psychological research in this area. Ms. Genovese was stabbed to death in 1964 by a serial rapist and murderer. According to newspaper accounts, the killing took place for at least a half an hour. The murderer attacked Ms. Genovese and stabbed her, but then fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. The killer then returned ten minutes later and finished the assault. Newspaper reports after Genovese’s death claimed that 38 witnesses watched the stabbings and failed to intervene or even contact the police. This event lead to widespread public attention and editorials that the United States had become a cold and uncaring society.

By: Peter Sabbagh


Religious sermons’ delivered to your computer; this could hurt donations but increase members –

We have written about how important text (SMS) messaging is, and that the future of text messaging and Twitter is in content development. Here is an example of what is possible for the next level of text messaging, and Twitter content and delivery. While, some of you have already heard about voice to text technology, Spinvox (or Jott in the USA), of England is marketing its technology to church going computer savvy people. We do not doubt that the Taliban have already embraced this method of communication via mobile phone, because the majority of their work is done surreptitiously outside a formal office environment.  Religious leaders in the UK have been delivering their Sunday sermons’, and other messages via e-mail to its members’ computers. As noted by Springwise, “Rev. John Kronenberg led the service celebrating the beginning of Advent; his words were automatically converted by SpinVox, and sent directly to subscribers’ in-boxes in a matter of moments. Some 100 members of St. Christopher’s church received the sermon by email on Sunday, and the next such service will take place on Dec. 21”. “A growing number of voice messaging services can transcribe a customer’s voice-mail messages into text e-mails. Frequently, these services use a combination of speech recognition software and human transcriptionists,” said Chris Strammiello, NaturallySpeaking Product manager. How soon before consumers are able to record meetings, and have speech recognition software accurately transcribe what everyone (multiple conversations) said into text? “Strammiello declined to guess, but allowed it would probably happen in less than ten years.”
By – Peter Sabbagh

Will India become a victim of its own success?

The terrorist attack on Bombay is much worse than CNN knows or is able to report, the number of lives lost and process in which they were taken is tragic. We all need to put down our Starbucks, think about the disorder in the world, and petition the US government, and global governments to develop a comprehensive and novel approach to the terrorism situation around the world.

As noted in Guardian’s Arundhati Roy, “If you were watching television you may not have heard that ordinary people too died in Mumbai. They were mowed down in a busy railway station and a public hospital. The terrorists did not distinguish between poor and rich. They killed both with equal cold-bloodedness. The Indian media, however, was transfixed by the rising tide of horror that breached the glittering barricades of India Shining and spread its stench in the marbled lobbies and crystal ballrooms of two incredibly luxurious hotels and a small Jewish centre”.

This is not India’s problem…it is everyone’s problem.


India has had a long history of terrorism prior to the recent November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. According to a research study at the University of Maryland, there have been “12,539 terrorist-related fatalities in India between 1970 and 2004 – an average of almost 360 fatalities per year from terrorism in India”.

Here’s a statistical summary on terrorism in India from the Global Terrorism Database (University of Maryland):
*4,108 terrorist incidents occurring in India between the years 1970 and 2004. During this period, India ranked sixth among all countries in terms of terrorist incidents (behind Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and Spain).
*12,539 terrorist-related fatalities in India between 1970 and 2004 – an average of almost 360 fatalities per year from terrorism in India. These fatalities peaked in 1991 and 1992, when 1,184 and 1,132 individuals (respectively) were killed in such incidents.
* Terrorists in India have employed a variety of attack types over time: 38.7% of terrorist events were facility attacks, 29.7% percent were bombings (in which the intent was to destroy a specific facility), and 25.5% were assassinations. The recent events in Mumbai would be classified as a series of coordinated facility attacks.”




The following are known terrorist groups in India:
·    Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC)
·    Adivasi Cobra Force (ACF)
·    al-Barq
·    al-Faran
·    al-Hadid
·    All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF)
·    al-Madina
·    al-Mansoorain
·    al-Qaeda
·    al-Zulfikar
·    Ananda Marga
·    Azad Hind Sena
·    Babbar Khalsa International (BKI)
·    Birsa Commando Force (BCF)
·    Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT)
·    Borok National Council of Tripura (BNCT)
·    Communist Party of India-Maoist
·    Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M)
·    Dima Halam Daoga (DHD)
·    Dukhtaran-e-Millat
·    Harkat ul-Ansar
·    Hindu Sena Rashtriya Sangh Party
·    Islami Inqilabi Mahaz
·    Islamic Defense Force
·    Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front
·    Janashakti
·    Jihad Committee
·    Kamtapur Liberation Organization
·    Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL)
·    Kangleipak Communist Party
·    Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Resistance Force (KNPR)
·    Kuki Liberation Army (KLA)
·    Kuki Revolutionary Army
·    Lashkar-e-Jabbar (LeJ)
·    Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)
·    Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)
·    Maoist Communist Center (MCC)
·    Mujahideen al-Mansooran
·    National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB)
·    National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT)
·    National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM)
·    National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K)
·    People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
·    People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK)
·    People’s United Liberation Front (PULF)
·    People’s War Group (PWG)
·    Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF)
·    Save Kashmir Movement
·    Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI)
·    Ukrainian Reactionary Force
·    United Achik National Front
·    United Kuki Liberation Front (UKLF)
·    United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA)
·    United National Liberation Front (UNLF)
·    United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS)
·    Zomi Revolutionary Army (ZRA)”

Note: These data were collected for the Terrorism Knowledge Base® (TKB®), managed by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) until March 2008. START has neither reviewed nor verified these data, but is presenting this information as a service to the homeland security community.

How has the reporting of terrorism and breaking news changed in India and globally? First there was CNN’s 24 hour coverage of the Iraq invasion in 1991, now it is real time twitter and live blogs covering breaking news events globally.

The live blog and real-time mobile, and computer updates by Twitter type devices have become some of the most effective communication tools for breaking news reporting via the web, and mobile phone. Live blogging can incorporate traditional news sources like CNN and the BBC, to complement its instant messaging news feed. It can also create a content rich reporting environment that is more effective than setting up traditional video cameras, lighting, and sound equipment.

Now it is the average bystander (gawker), or a hostage hiding out in a closet inside the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, that is sending Twitter and text messages to their family and friends in Chicago.  They provide the most unrehearsed, and dramatic accounts of breaking news anywhere in the world. Posted photos and videos can also be embedded on a live blog, and then transferred to Flickr for further worldwide saturation.


Mumbai Attack Aftermath Detailed, Tweet by Tweet

Quote – “First-hand accounts of the deadly Mumbai attacks are pouring in on Twitter, Flickr, and other social media.
Twitter has fresh news every few seconds, on Mumbai, Bombay, #Mumbai, and @BreakingNewz.
“Hospital update. Shots still being fired. Also Metro cinema next door,” tweets mumbaiattack. “Blood needed at JJ hospital,” adds aeropolowoman, supplying the numbers for the blood bank.
A Google map of the attacks has already been set up. So has a shockingly-current Wikipedia page, which features a picture of one of the gun-toting attackers.
The local bloggers at Metblogs Mumbai have new updates every couple of minutes. So do the folks at GroundReport. Dozens of videos have been uploaded to YouTube. But the most remarkable citizen journalism may be coming from “Vinu,” who is posting a stream of harrowing post-attack pictures to Flickr.

Blogging breaking news during a terrorism attack-

Quote -“I can’t believe this is my city. I can’t believe I just passed Ramada hotel ten minutes ago and didn’t realise that the little crowd near the gates would end up being a gunfire battle. I can’t believe the Taj hotel is burning. They’ve got hostages in there. More than half are American and British hostages. It’s 1.21am. There’s been a new explosion at the Taj. A friend of mine is in there. His wine glass had a bullet go through it. He said he was being evacuated to the 18th floor except that’s where they apparently took hostages. We can’t get through to his phone. A friend’s sister escaped just as the shooting began. Some of the terrorists have escaped in a police van. Charming”.

Quote -“The scale and planning of the attack have been phenomenal. No one knows who is responsible. Obviously it is a well funded and well trained group. These guys have assault machine guns, grenades, military explosives and God knows what othe“r armament. Besides the locals at the CST Train station, they have been targeting US and UK citizens and have taken local Jews as hostages. Also some Israelis who had come for a Diamond trade conference at the Oberoi Hotel have also been taken hostage. The Leopold Cafe where a lot of foreigners hang out was also attacked, and guests were gunned down gangland style. With the Indian General Elections due early next year – there could be an attempt to alter public opinion to change the result by a mass attack – no one knows ??? Most of the attacks have been in South Mumbai”.

What is next for India?

Why will economic growth, globalization, and the social homogenization of Indian culture with America, Europe, and other progressive (liberal) societies likely increase India’s venerability to terrorism in the future?

The recent attacks in Mumbai were part of a well funded ( possibly by Dubai) and organized (possibly by Pakistan) effort to destabilize India’s economy. Fortunately, the Indian economy is very resilient and the stock market bounced back one day after the attacks, although the lives that were taken did not. The attacks were planned to target Indian and foreign business professionals socializing at Mumbai’s top hotels and dining areas, while they were having dinner. The idea was to discourage ongoing (domestic and international) business investment, and related partnerships from continuing in India. Similarly, prominent business community leaders living in America, and India believe the attacks were not exclusively targeted at foreign visitors, they were very much about destabilizing India in the eyes of the world. Let’s hope that innocent Muslim’s do not experience any negative repercussions from the grieving members of the Indian community.

How and why do these terrorists groups develop?

Functional aggregations, the aggregation of human beings is believed to have taken place because of common language, patterns of interaction, and religious customs, beliefs and practice.  If one functional aggregation with different objectives perceives the other as a roadblock to their functional objectives, a conflict can take place, and it is sometimes expressed in the form of terrorism. If one group’s objective is to transform the other culture or group to become “one”,  that functional aggregation or group will also point out the differences in common language, patterns of interaction, religious customs, beliefs, and practice.

This new level of awareness and identity can create a second aggregation of individuals where differences in common language, patterns of interaction, religious customs, and beliefs and practice are a symbol of identity. This new level of identity will then activate a new identity(s), seeking to emphasize differences between the two groups or roadblocks for their survival. What is important is that one group views the elements of their aggregation as an example of common language or customs, and the other group sees it as a symbol of their identity.

The current Indian crisis has greater social implications than have been reported in the news. For example, all of the schools in Mumbai had to be closed for fear of additional terrorist attacks. What some viewers watched on CNN as current news, were delayed reports by approximately two hours. Many Indians turned to other forms of communication (new media) to receive their breaking news information such as, instant messaging, and Twitter. In addition, they found BBC reports more up to date for a traditional media source.

Most of the interested public around the world will probably never know about many of the horrific events that took place at the terrorist attack locations. For example, at the Oberoi Hotel 8 members of a prominent Indian law firm were shot gangland style while having dinner. The Manager of the Taj Mahal Hotel who also lived with his family (wife and several children) at the hotel, hid his family in a hotel room and told them to stay there quietly, within a short time terrorists set the room on fire, they all died. The Manager is currently working with authorities to uncover additional crime scene information even though his family has been lost. Two friends of my family (husband and wife) left their children at home on the evening of the attack, and went to the Oberoi Hotel for dinner, as they walked into one of the hotel’s restaurants they encountered the terrorist holding the restaurant quests hostage, the terrorists spotted them as the entered, and they were shot and killed. They became the first two people killed at the takeover of the Oberoi Hotel, their children that were waiting for them at home never saw them again. Only 12 of the reported 40 terrorist have been caught, and the remaining ones are scattered around the city of Mumbai. Some of them had been enrolled at universities in Mumbai, and some were employed at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Did they help their comrades orchestrate the Taj Mahal Hotel takeover?

The Taj Mahal Hotel has two sections, the Original building which is considered a historic landmark with Louis 16th furniture and valuable paintings, and the newer section that was part of a modern expansion in recent years. The interior of the original historic part of the hotel has been destroyed, and the authorities are afraid the foundation may possibly collapse from the stress of the fire and related bombings.


Taj Mahal Hotel during the terrorist attack November 2008

In the future, India and other developing countries will have to rethink its security measures with regard to terrorism; they are now perceived around the world as being part of the larger global system of political thought, policy, and culture. All or some of these global cultural elements can be in conflict with the myriad of human aggregations that have the ability to express their new level of conscious identity in the form of terrorism. Eventually there may have to be an independent dispute resolution council represented by many global governments to communicate with, and diffuse these groups (aggregations). Communicating by terrorism will not help these groups realize their new identity and objectives.

By – Peter Sabbagh

Hey there! NYCrimeStories is presenting an encore edition of “A Vampire Did It”, its second Twitter micro crime novel in its entirety on the Resource for Social Media blog.


A vampire did it!

John was a 50 year old man born in South Africa, of  Australian origin. On Christmas Eve about 1 AM while John was trying to sleep he heard his son  Jason playing his electric piano and other electronic  equipment being played loudly in the bedroom next to his. Because  John and Jason’s rooms were next to each other, the  music was clearly heard. Feeling very tired from working late into the night driving a taxi, and drinking a couple of beers when he returned home, he knocked on his  son’s door to ask him to turn the volume down. Jason  then walked over to John (Dad) with a baseball bat, and shouted at him to leave the room. John left the room and walked down the stairs to the basement, picked up a cigarette lighter from the tool box, and a container of  gasoline (which he kept there for his taxi), and transferred some of the gas into a smaller  container. He then walked backup the stairs carrying a  cigarette lighter and a jar of gasoline.

His wife Sara  headed to the second floor of their Bronx house a few minutes later after she heard the two arguing. She walked into her son’s bedroom and saw John with a lit lighter in one hand, and a container in the other hand.  Jason had the bat raised in the air while John was threatening to use the lighter to the gas if Jason moved any closer to him. When Sara attempted to  stop the argument by standing between the father and  son, John (based on Sara and Jason’s statement) threw gasoline on her upper body saturating her clothing and set her on fire with his lighter, the liquid gas also reached the window curtains, and the flames from Sara’s burning shirt spread to the curtains.

Carol, Jason’s sister ran up the stairs to the second floor and into Jason’s bedroom after hearing her mother  scream. Her Father then threw gasoline onto her body; John began jabbing his lit lighter at them without  igniting Jason and Carol’s gasoline covered clothing,  while the carpet and curtain were burning.

Jason wrapped a blanket around his mother putting out the flames on her body and placed her on his bed. John poured the remaining gasoline onto Jason, and tried to set him on fire again. John then ran out of the bedroom down the stairs wrapped in only a blanket, his arm and legs badly burnt, he ran up the block to a BP Gas Station.

Paco, a manager in the gas station watched John walk into his station wrapped in a blanket, without clothing.  The John asked Paco to lend him money for the pay phone so that he could ask his brother to bring him clothing, and give him a ride out of the neighborhood. Paco noticed that John was bruised; he had marks covering his face and legs. Then Paco offered John his cell phone, and also provided him with a  several articles of clothing that were hung on the back of the office door; a shirt, pants, and work  boots found in the stations auto repair area. Paco also gave him three dollars; John then left the station  without out waiting for his brother to arrive.

In an attempt to distance himself from the crime scene, John left the BP Station; and by that time the neighborhood fire department crew arrived at his house, and managed to distinguish the fire in the upstairs bedroom before it spread throughout the house. When the police arrived several minutes later they immediately questioned John’s daughter Carol and brother Jason (while her mother Sara  was rushed to the burn center at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital). During the questioning of Jason and Carol by Police, they discovered that John had a brother named Andrew living in the neighborhood. They immediately followed-up with a telephone call to him.  Andrew stated to police that he received a telephone  call from John a few minutes earlier requesting he pick him up, but when he arrived at the BP Station John had already left the station, and he did not know where he was going to next.

While being questioned at the house by Police, Carol told Officer McDermott that she found a telephone book on the kitchen table with the name Delta written on the  cover. Carol believed that John may have made plans to leave town by booking a plane reservation. Police officer Sanchez, McDermott’s partner immediately sent notification to JFK Airport Police with an ID of John.

Within a short time John was spotted in the Delta  Terminal at JFK by Airport Police. Officers McDermott  and Sanchez drove to JFK Airport to meet with  authorities at the Delta domestic terminal. Once they arrived, they confirmed John’s ID as he was drinking a cup of coffee and pacing back and forth in front of  Terminal Gate 13. John was then apprehended by airport authorities shortly before boarding flight #172 to Las  Vegas. The only item John had in his pocked was his personal credit card, which he used to purchase an airline ticket and pay for his taxi fare to JFK. John’s burn injuries required him to be taken to a nearby burn center  hospital, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the same  hospital Sara had been rushed to several hours earlier.  John was diagnosed with 2nd degree burns on his legs and arms. When Police asked why he was boarding the airplane, he stated that he needed a vacation.

Fire Report:

Fire Martial O’Malley’s report discovered that there  were two separate fires started in the house. The first  fire began in the vapors of a flammable liquid at the top of the stairs on the second floor landing of John’s  home, the fire then spread to Sara’s upper body, and from there to the curtains and walls of the second floor  bedroom. Fire two originated in the center of the  bedroom and spread to John’s body.

John received treatment at the burn center hospital for about one week, and then was transferred to the Bronx Criminal Psychiatric Hospital.

John’s case qualified for representation by Legal Aid Attorney David Butler, and Butler immediately suggested to John that he consider using the insanity defense. He explained to John that  the legal system in South Africa had some differences to the American system of law. In South Africa, the legal system is made of laws from countries such as France, England and the Dutch, these countries were once former  occupiers of South Africa. Also, the threshold of proving that you were insane (not responsible) at the  time of a crime is the defendants responsibility  (burden) to prove, as it is in America. Although South Africa has different laws regulating and determining criminal responsibility. And that both countries determine  “criminal responsibility” through a series of  psychiatric examinations. In America, a psychiatrist or  psychologist may explore all or one of the following  issues: the persons thinking, feeling, motives, and  control at the time of the criminal act. Footnote: this  standard is used in many States in America, and is known as the M’Naughten standard. John did not abject to this (strategy).

John’s Attorney, David Butler quickly scheduled John for a psychiatric examination. Once the DA received notice that John may be pleading “not responsible by reason of  mental defect,” the District Attorney requested that the court approve the examination of John by one of their  psychiatric examiners “hired guns” to counter John’s defense strategy. [Note: It is generally believed that the Prosecution will sometimes hire a specific (hired gun) doctor that will support their position in a legal case, and the defense will do the same.] Within a week the DA’s motion for a psychiatric examination was approved by the  court. While Butler was waiting for the court appointed examination, he received notice from the District Attorney that John had been charged with Attempted Murder, Assault, Arson, and Reckless Endangerment.

What exactly is the insanity defense? First it must be found that the defendant actually committed the act. If he did not, then the defendant would not be guilty.  Next, he must have a mental disease or defect at the  time of the crimes, not at the time of trial. If so, then as a result of his mental disease he lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either the nature, or consequences of such criminal conduct, or that it was wrong. In NY they have a modified version of The Rule in M’Naughten  case” (English law of 1843). The main important difference is that in New York the defendant must “lack substantial capacity to know or appreciate the nature, and consequences of his act or that it was wrong.

John was first examined by Dr. Cosgrove, a Certified Psychiatrist hired by David Butler, John’s Attorney.    Dr. Cosgrove examined John on two occasions. The first  examination took place shortly after his discharge from the burn center hospital following his transfer to the Bronx Psychiatric facility in NYC. John was found not to be oriented to what the mental health professionals call  “time,” and he was said to be delusional in his thinking process, and considered not fit to stand trial.  About four weeks later at the second evaluation and with the benefit of medication John became psychologically stable and oriented to time and place.  Although he still had some delusional thoughts. John recalled the following events of the crime scene, “my wife was standing in the room between my son and me trying to take the baseball bat away from Jason, she then bumped into my arm holding the gasoline, and the gasoline spilled onto her shirt. The lit lighter then accidentally ignited the gasoline and we both got burned.” Dr Cosgrove then showed the statement John made to the District Attorney shortly following the accident (four weeks earlier). In  the statement he said that he tried to ’cause the death of his wife Sara using the gasoline.”  He replied “the  District Attorney can write whatever they want to even if it is not true.”

John then told Dr Cosgrove that he believed his wife has a boyfriend, and that he has seen them together.  John also believed that Sara  and her boyfriend were involved in a plan to kill him, by injecting him with a needle while he was sleeping. The needle apparently contained some kind of sleep drug. When John asked his wife Sara about the injections and bruises on his arm Sara replied, “a vampire did it.” He also stated that the  injections made him sleep until the following morning.  These injections happened on numerous occasions, and after a while he was unable to go to work because he had trouble walking, seeing, and eating. “They were trying  to poison me and kill me, my children and wife wanted  the house and life insurance policy” he stated.

Following the second interview/examination Dr. Cosgrove determined that John was mentally fit for trial, and had the mental ability to reason and think strategically about his legal case. His diagnosis suggested that he suffered from schizophrenia, the chronic type.

The second psychiatrist that examined John was Dr. King,  a certified psychiatrist hired by the District Attorney.  Dr King examined John on two occasions, the first,  shortly following his transfer from the hospital to the criminal psychiatric facility, and a second time six weeks later. After the first examination Dr King believed that the patient had delusions about his wife, her boyfriend, and the possibility of being drugged.

At the second examination, he found John fully alert,  clean, and neatly dressed. He was oriented to time and place, reciting the time, date and who the president was, his birth date and his current location. He also  understood the charges against him, reciting the most serious being, Attempted Murder. In his own defense John stated that he did not want to plead guilty, he wanted  to stand by his new story that the fire was an accident.  He was fully aware that he could plead the insanity defense, and made the conscious/strategic decision not  to. At the time of the second examination, he was found not to remember clearly his arrest at the airport, and his attempt to board a plane to Los Vegas. He remembered the house fire as “the accident that happened  after his son chased him out of the house with a  baseball bat.” When asked why he was flying to Los Vegas he said, “I was going to get some rest and to get away from my wife and her boyfriend who was trying to kill  me.”

Dr. King ended the examination by finding him currently without any impairment of is ability to  perceive, recall, and relate, and having no difficulty understanding the various defense alternatives and the  pressure of a trial.

Dr King found John fit to proceed, and ruled out the possibly of having schizophrenia and paranoia, and  suggested a possible personality disorder, but was currently able to understand the charges against him.

Shortly after John’s case had been scheduled for trial,  John was concerned about his insanity defense strategy, both medical examiners found him currently fit for trial even though the two medical examiners initially found him delusional shortly after setting fire to his wife and home. For John to be excused of all criminal charges against him, the jury would have to find that the fire in his home, and the burns his wife received were a result of John’s lack of substantial capacity to know or appreciate the nature and consequences of his act.

The prosecutor tries his/her case to win, if they think that a defendant has been wrongly indicted on weak or  speculative evidence, rather than loosing the case and creating bad press for his office, affecting the DA’s  yearly win statistics, he may dismiss or offer a plea bargain (deal).

Just after the incident at John’s home in the Bronx, John was said to be delusional in his thinking process and considered not fit to stand trial by two psychiatrists’.  It was only after approximately six weeks of  hospitalization that included drug treatment (medication) that he was “made” ready to stand trial for his criminal acts. Did this mean that he was actually not responsible for his behavior on Christmas Eve? Could the  DA convince and prove to the jury that John was able to decide right from wrong at the time of the  criminal acts, or that his actions were premeditated?

The DA chose to offer John a plea bargain, in the eyes of the DA, and the political pressure that its office is  under to show successful prosecution results (statistics), the plea looks better than an acquittal to the public, or a finding of not guilty by reason of mental defect.  The deal was for John to plead guilty to Attempted  Murder, and in return he would receive a sentence of 6  to 15 years in prison. John and his attorney considered his defense, and the following issues they would have to  prove to the Jury, 1) his original statement to the Assistant District Attorney that he tried to cause the death of is wife Sara, 2) the witnesses (his daughter and son) at his house at the time of the crime, 3) fleeing the crime scene, 4) attempt to leave the state by plane,  5) John’s ability to prove that Sara and her boyfriend were injecting him on a regular basis with a toxic life threatening drug (which could actually work in his favor at a jury trial proving his insanity, or against him showing reason to revenge Sara), and 6)  John’s psychiatric reports that found him delusional at the time of the crime, but fit approximately six weeks later, which is how he would have to present himself to a trial jury.

John’s attorney David Butler advised John to accept the DA’s plea bargain offer, and John Agreed. John received a sentence of 6 to 15 years in prison.

NYCrimeStories is broadcasting its second forensic psychiatric crime story called – A vampire did it!

Resource for Social Media via NYCrimeStories is broadcasting its second forensic psychiatric crime story called – A vampire did it! It takes place in New York City. It’s on Twitter.

If you would like to read the story in its entirety, check back with Resource for Social Media later this month for an encore edition of, A vampire did it!


Style over function has taken social networking to a new level; a social networking and marketing trend without a computer or mobile technology… what’s next, sex in the sky?

If new social networking technologies like FaceBook and text messaging are not enough to keep you part of the social inner circle, there is now a new trend in social communications that doesn’t require a computer or cell phone. It is 50 meters up in the sky, and is called dinner, show biz,  marriage,  and meeting in the sky. The Europeans have pushed envelope when it comes to social networking trends, by introducing what appears to be an increasingly popular, and novel way to meet with friends and colleagues. It is a platform suspended at a height of 50 meters (164 feet) by a team of “industry professionals”. Although many of us may ask “where is the bathroom? I guess you will have to hand out umbrellas’ to the onlookers below your airborne event, or just hold on until you are lowered back down to the ground. The company response to this question was “It’s like in a normal restaurant: you ask the waiter where the toilet is and… you go down. It’s just a bit less discrete because the whole table goes down but it takes less than a minute”.

By: Peter Sabbagh

Photos via Meetings in the Sky.




NYCrime Stories latest micro-novel – A vampire did it!

NYCrimeStories NYCrimeStories NYCrimeStories second micro-novel is titled -A vampire did it! Read it on Twitter now, or in a couple of weeks on Resource for Social Media.