Subway Murders

Two murders in New York city do not an epidemic make.  The brazen nature of these 2 killings that left victims helplessly anticipating a terrifying, painful death, and, the sheer stark horror of each victim’s final moments, will remain hauntingly with all of us, whether we utilize subways or not. For regular users of the subway, however, the thought of such an occurrence is likely their worst nightmare.

In the 1st of the 2, Naeem Davis, 30, pushed 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han, a resident of Queens, in front of an oncoming subway train.  Davis now stands charged with second-degree murder.  In the 2nd killing, Erika Menendez pushed Sunado Sen, a complete stranger, in front of an oncoming 11-car train. Both victims were killed instantly. Both, prior to their death, made futile efforts to escape the deep subway well while others looked on helplessly and motionless.  On the list of preferred ways to die, this would rank lowest on my list. On the list of uncivilized behavior, the actions of the perpetrators would rank highest.

Predictably, each perpetrator advanced an explanation for their cowardly behavior. Erika Menendez is alleged to have said, “I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers.” Naeem Davis, working on his own version of self-defense, apparently proclaimed that his victim “attacked me first.” The first explanation will no doubt lead to a claim of insanity based on the horrors of 9/11, apparently  impacting more deeply and personally on this woman than millions of others, including those who actually lost loved ones in the 9/11 attack.  The second explanation, equally untenable and unsupportable, will nevertheless be played out in court by some energetic defense lawyer, despite its chance of success hovering somewhere between slim and nil.

The fate of the perpetrators, while important to their families, will have little or no impact on any of us. Two years from now it will be page 23 news in the New York Times. What should, however, have an impact on us is the cavalier attitude of governmental authorities accepting that nothing can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, suggested that there is “nothing anyone can do to prevent mentally ill people from pushing innocent victims in front of subway trains.”  Firstly, there is definitely no evidence that either of these perpetrators was or is mentally ill.  Indeed, our law assumes they are not mentally ill and it is they who must establish mental illness based upon evidence acceptable to a jury. They each attempted to escape, a sure sign that they each believed their acts to be morally wrong and contrary to law.

Secondly, and more importantly, lots can be done to prevent intentional killings, accidental falls and just plain mistakes that can lead to these types of horrifying deaths. Inexpensive fences could be erected with gates that open to allow all subway customers to enter only after the subway has arrived and is stationary.  Electronic sensors could be installed at all subway ramps that would automatically cut power or produce warning signals to oncoming trains.  And, of course, as with most allegedly unsolvable problems that are, in fact, solvable, additional subway personnel could be utilized to protect and supervise waiting patrons of the subway.

Mayor Bloomberg is no doubt correct when he suggests that there are many people, particularly in a city the size of New York, who are mentally ill.  All the more reason that active steps must be taken to prevent further deaths. The legal principle that we have a duty to our neighbors to protect them even from their own misfeasance encompasses the idea of forward, preventative planning.  You plan to protect persons from being victimized by any manner of bad conduct, whether fueled by insanity or not.