Should bystanders come to the rescue?

Photo courtesy of iStock photo, illustration by Jill Kanuchok
Photo courtesy of iStock photo, illustration by Jill Kanuchok

As Metro Red Line car No. 3045 rolled out of the Rhode Island Avenue station on the afternoon of July 4 toward its next stop at NoMa-Gallaudet, Jasper Spires of Washington attacked 24-year-old Kevin Joseph Sutherland of Washington, a former congressional intern, stabbing him more than 30 times, according to court documents.

About 10 passengers watched Sutherland’s murder occur. They did not intervene.

Spires, 18, was arrested on July 6 and charged with first-degree murder while armed.

One of the witnesses recounted the ordeal on Reddit. He wrote that his wife attempted to notify the train operator while he hit the call button. After the train pulled up to the station and Spires got off, he sat with Sutherland until he died.

“What I don’t wish is that I had somehow tried to attack the assailant,” he wrote. “I am little bit larger than he was, but I would not have won. It’s scary, because if we had been sitting closer and had seen the attack start I probably would have tried to help and would have been stabbed.”

Metro Transit Police said in a statement that they “do not advise people to intervene or confront suspects, out of concern for their safety.”

But what do laws in the United States say? Jewish law? Does a bystander have a duty to rescue someone in physical danger?

“You have no duty to act. No duty to rescue. That’s part of our freedom. You have a freedom to not act,” says criminal defense attorney Lonny Bramzon.

Common law, the Anglo-American body of law made up of judicial decisions, says there is indeed no duty to come to the rescue of another.

However, in other countries, including France and Germany, not helping someone in distress can be considered a criminal or civil offense. However, these laws make exceptions if the rescue would endanger the rescuer’s life or those of others.

“As a legal matter the law is quite clear,” says Justin Dillon, a criminal defense attorney with Kaiser, LeGrand & Dillon in Washington. “But there is a difference between a moral duty and a legal duty. Whether a moral duty exists is an issue for philosophers and theologians.”

The Torah is clear about a bystander’s duty to rescue. But, as with much of scripture adapted to the modern world, context is important.

“Saving a life is a top priority in Judaism,” says Temple Sinai Rabbi Jonathan Roos. However, the Reform rabbi is quick to point out that in most circumstances protecting one’s own life is paramount.

This interpretation of the biblical text cuts across denominations.

“You have an obligation to help someone else. However, the parameters of it are that you should not put your own life at risk. Putting your own life at risk is also not the right thing to do,” says Chabad Lubavitch of Northern Virginia Rabbi Sholom Deitsch.

Both rabbis Roos and Deitsch cite the Torah mitzvah Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa, Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:16), as the basis in Judaism for helping someone in need.

In addition to the Torah commandment, Roos points out another concept in Judaism, the Talmudic principle of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.

Sabbath laws may be violated and eating on Yom Kippur may be permitted if one’s health is in danger.

“Saving a life trumps your ritual and religious responsibility, even on the holiest day of the year with the most characteristic observance of that holy day. So saving a life is more important than fasting on Yom Kippur,” says Roos.

The man on the train described the last moments of Sutherland’s life in his Reddit post.

“I sat with Kevin, held his hand, stroked his head and kept telling him to breathe, and that he was going to see the fireworks next year. I sat with him until he died. By the time the paramedics showed up, he had stopped breathing.”

The comfort that was provided during Sutherland’s final moments could be considered a holy act, of being responsible to a neighbor who is bleeding, according to Roos.

“We do know from the train that some of the people brought comfort and aid to him once the attack was over and they could safely get to him. It is possible to make the case they fulfilled that mitzvah.”

[email protected]

Metro safety questions persist

The July 4 stabbing death of Kevin Joseph Sutherland, Metro’s first homicide aboard a train, is not the only safety concern at the ailing transit agency.

In January, a woman died after a train filled with smoke. On July 14 a man was fatally shot at a parking garage of the Wheaton Metro station. These deaths and complaints by commuters of daily delays, mechanical malfunctions and poor customer service have prompted Congress and the Obama administration to get involved in fixing the second-busiest rapid transit system in the nation.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently convened a closed-door meeting with Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to discuss safety and financial issues at Metro, including the prolonged search for a new general manager. The talks were prompted by a Federal Transit Administration report identifying safety lapses at Metro along with recommendations to ensure that the subway and bus system is safe for passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board has also issued critical safety recommendations as part of an ongoing investigation into the deadly smoke incident at the L’Enfant Plaza station.

Metro officials were summoned to Capitol Hill this week for a safety hearing by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman, I-at large, said last week that Foxx has stepped in “shows the urgency of addressing both the safety and financial issues at Metro” and how important the transit system is to the federal workforce.

Said Silverman: “Certainly we are concerned about the search for a general manager, concerned about the financial state of Metro and certainly remain extremely concerned about addressing the safety issues that have been identified by various investigating bodies at this point.”

Josh Marks

[email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


  1. Thank you for writing about this. I wonder if you could ask the police, what are possible measures that a group of witnesses could do in such a situation to try and help. There must be something people in numbers might do that one could not. Also, I wonder, what was the outcome of the attempts to contact the train operator and use the call button? If these attempts, to take action and get help, met a dead end— THAT should be be fixed! Then at least there would be SOMETHING one could do to effectively take action and do something.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here