Coroner's blame harsh, say experts
By the time Iraena Asher walked into the sea and drowned, there were at least nine people who could have come to her aid.
Some did nothing. Some tried to help in a small way. But only one family chose to do more for the distressed, erratic young woman - and now they have been labelled partially responsible for her fate.
Piha couple Julia Woodhouse and Bobbie Carroll were told their decision not to call police when they took Asher home for the night after finding her alone on the side of the road was a “contributing factor” in her 2004 death, a coroner's ruling last week concluded, eight years after she disappeared.
Shocked at the seeming hypocrisy of a decision that also labelled them “Good Samaritans”, the women have been left wondering if the ruling will only discourage others from lending a hand.
“Of all the people who interacted with Iraena, why has he [the coroner] singled us out?” Carroll asked.
“What is the message to New Zealand here? That if you step in to help you will have contributed to a death?”
Carroll's concerns that people will become observers rather than helpers are part of a phenomenon researched extensively by sociologists, labelled the “Bystander Effect”.
Stemming from the infamous case of a young woman named Kitty Genovese who was raped and murdered on the streets of New York while her neighbours seemingly looked on without intervening, the effect holds that if you're the victim, you're better off if one person rather than a crowd is watching your distress.
Psychologists say that was because people would always assume someone else was better placed than them to help, or that someone else had already done something - called the police, for example.
While the Asher case isn't so clear-cut, there were other people who interacted with her, but also didn't call police. T
These included her boyfriend and the couple she spent the day drinking with, who told the court she was “out of it” and “like a zombie”.
They, and another couple who also did not call 111 - the last two people to see her alive, naked in the middle of a stormy night heading towards the beach - received no mention in Coroner Peter Ryan's ruling.
Criminologist Greg Newbold, a professor from the University of Canterbury, says their actions don't necessarily equate to bystander apathy.
“I can see why those [last] people didn't call police. It's her business. If a girl wants to stand around naked, why the hell can't she?” Newbold said.
Most people would usually call 111 if they could see a person's behaviour had a predictable adverse outcome, he said.
“Otherwise it's like dobbing people in. And we don't like dobbing people in.”
In that vein, Newbold believed the coroner's comments towards Woodhouse and Carroll were very harsh.
“That girl drowning was by no means a predictable outcome. It wasn't even a remotely likely outcome in those circumstances,” he said.
“I think they were acting like responsible citizens. I feel sorry for Woodhouse and Carroll. And I think most people would see the reality of that situation.”
In making his ruling, Ryan said he was not criticising Woodhouse and Carroll, but was "acknowledging there was an opportunity for professional intervention that may have affected the outcome."
American criminologist James Oleson, who is currently based at Auckland University, said he could see the practical intentions of the statement and he believed others would too.
“One thing that seems kind of interesting about New Zealand is that because it's a smaller country it seems like that whole can-do, No 8-wire mentality means that people are more willing to help where they can,” Oleson said.
In the United States, he said, people were not as willing because there were healthcare issues and lawsuits to worry about - and no law to say people had an obligation to help others.
“There have been cases when people would stand on the shore and watch someone drown and die. The law doesn't hold people accountable.”
Oleson said this ruling was unlikely to set a precedent in New Zealand that would encourage others to stand back.
“It's unfortunate that the people who did something and recognised a problem are being blamed.”
- © Fairfax NZ News
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