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Homecoming rape: When do bystanders become accomplices?

The circumstances of the case – with some witnesses reportedly cheering – means that some bystanders could be charged as accomplices. But that would be difficult for prosecutors to prove.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2009

Two students walk next to a sign about violence at Richmond High School in Richmond, Calif., on Thursday.

Paul Sakuma/AP

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San Francisco

The case of a 15-year-old girl who was raped outside her high school homecoming dance last weekend is likely to raise legal questions about who was merely a witness and who was an accomplice.

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Four teenagers were arraigned in Richmond, Calif., Thursday. Three of the suspects are juveniles, and one is a 19-year-old man. All have been charged as adults. A 21-year-old man has also been arrested but not officially charged in the rape.

The assault has shocked Bay Area residents not only because as many as two dozen people apparently witnessed it but because the attack went on for more than two hours without anyone reporting or stopping it.

A former Richmond High School student, who heard about the rape secondhand, eventually alerted Richmond Police, who expect to make more arrests in the case.

Some experts have attributed the witness inaction to the so-called bystander effect, which posits that witnesses are less likely to intervene if other bystanders aren't stepping in to stop the crime.

Drew Carberry of the National Council on Crime Prevention told CNN: "If you are in a crowd and you look and see that everyone is doing nothing, then doing nothing becomes the norm."

Early reports indicate that some bystanders recorded the rape on cellphones and others cheered. If that's correct, those individuals could be charged as accomplices under California law even if they didn't physically assault the victim.

Accomplice liability is applicable to someone who aides and abets a crime, says Kara Dansky, executive director at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. If a bystander verbally encouraged a crime, they can face the same level of punishment as those who actually carry it out, she says.

For his part, Richmond Police Lt. Mark Gagen told CNN that police "do not have the ability to arrest people who witnessed the crime and did nothing.... The law can be very rigid. We don't have the authority to make an arrest."

But Professor Dansky suspects the question of accomplice liability will become a key issue in the prosecution's case.

Answering the question of what amounts to aiding and abetting, however, will require "intensive fact investigation on the part of the police and difficult line-drawing on the part of the prosecutors," she notes on her blog.

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