Bearing witness, but not the duty to report a crime


POSTED: Saturday, October 17, 2009

People witnessing a major crime have a moral or civic responsibility to report it, but not a legal one, according to legal experts and a University of Hawaii professor.

The issue surfaced this week with the revelation in court documents that three hotel workers saw a man on top of someone who was kicking on Waikiki Beach about 3 a.m. Oct. 2. There is no mention in the court documents that the employees called police. About three hours later, police were called when the nude body of a woman was found in the ocean nearby.

The woman was Bryanna Antone of New Mexico, who was here with family celebrating her 25th birthday. Police later charged 31-year-old Aaron Susa with second-degree murder in connection with her death.

The city medical examiner said Antone drowned, but said contributing factors included injuries on her neck consistent with applied pressure and acute alcohol intoxication.

Susa, who is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail, told police that he had sex with Antone in the ocean but that they went separate ways after arguing.

According to the court documents, a cook at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel told officers investigating the death he watched for 10 minutes as a man choked or shoved a woman 30 times, while the woman was kicking.

Shortly afterward, he saw a couple in the ocean, but was unsure if it was the same couple.

Two fellow workers joined the cook, who told them he saw a man choking or shoving a woman, and the two told police they saw a man on top of someone who was kicking. One of those two employees was unsure if the person underneath was a man or a woman, according to the court documents.

University of Hawaii women's studies professor and criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind said, “;People tend to be frozen or fearful.”;

People often see a sexual assault in progress and incorrectly assume it is a dating couple having a dispute and that it is a private matter in which they should not get involved, she said.

“;Domestic violence is a crime,”; and the correct response is simply to call 911, she said.

“;If they can't figure out what's going on ... call police,”; she said, adding that if they feel they aren't in a safe place, get to a safe place and call.

Susa is not charged with sexual assault.

Chesney-Lind advised against intervening, pointing out two Hawaii cases in which men tried to help. In one case, Ned Nakoa died last year after he was punched when he tried to help a Kaneohe Marine who was being attacked by men who stole his girlfriend's purse in Waikiki.

In the other case, a man was injured last year when he tried to help a woman who was being beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend in the middle of a Kailua street.

The inaction of a university student who looked on while his friend raped and murdered a 7-year-old Los Angeles girl in a Nevada casino prompted legislation in 2000 to make it illegal in California not to report a witnessed crime against a child.

Ohio is possibly the only state where a person who witnesses a felony being committed or has knowledge of a crime is required to report it to law enforcement.

But in Hawaii, as in most states, people are generally not required by law to report a crime, with some exceptions such as social workers, teachers and medical professionals, who must report suspected child abuse.

UH law professor Virginia Hench said, “;You would have a moral obligation to come forward or to call,”; but not a legal one, citing problems in enforcement with such laws.

She recalled the 1964 New York City murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese, which was witnessed by 38 people, according to a New York Times article.

“;It was drawn out over a period of time and nobody so much as picked up a phone to call for help,”; said Hench, who was a teenager at the time.

Attorney Earle Partington said, “;If somebody doesn't want to get involved, there's no requirement they do.”;

“;It's hard to enforce those laws,”; he said. “;It's a matter of civic and social responsibility.”;

In a letter to the Star-Bulletin, Tom Boyle said: “;I consider it my duty as a citizen of Honolulu to call the police when I am witness to somebody being harmed. I believe it is beyond our civic duty to call police. It is our responsibility as humans.”;

The Star-Bulletin tried to contact the witnesses through the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, which deferred all questions to Jim Fulton, executive assistant with the city Prosecutor's Office.

Fulton said one of the three witnesses expressed not wanting to speak to the media at this time. They have been cooperating with police from the beginning and are advised not to do anything to jeopardize the ongoing investigation, he said.

He cautioned that in any case, “;the court document that the media received is not a complete reflection of what the witness testimony may or may not be.”;