What Would You Do as a Witness to Crime?

An infamous psychopathic serial killer died a couple of months ago in prison at the age of 81. You likely don’t recognize the name Winston Moseley but you might very well have heard about the last murder he committed.

In March 1964, Moseley hunted down, repeatedly stabbed, raped and killed a young New York woman named Kitty Genovese. The New York Times shocked the nation when it reported that 38 neighbors in and around Kitty’s Queens, New York apartment building had witnessed the 3 a.m. attack and did nothing in response to her repeated screams for help.

The Genovese Murder Continues to Haunt

The Genovese Murder Continues to Haunt

No one called police, the paper reported, during the grisly 35-minute attack in which the killer retreated then returned to Kitty 3 times. They simply watched her die on the sidewalk. The story came to symbolize the hardening of American sensibilities, the idea that bystanders who declared, “I don’t want to get involved,” constituted a new sociological trend.

The newspaper started a discussion that continues to this day:  What would you do if you saw a crime occurring? How would you react if it was a murder in progress?

Behavioral science professors back in the mid-60’s used Kitty’s notorious case in class to explore what was coined “The Genovese Effect,” citizen indifference to their fellow human beings during their most terrifying time of need. The murder inspired episodes of television shows such as one on “Perry Mason.” Folk singer Phil Ochs wrote a song called, “Small Circle of Friends” that began with a callous mention of Kitty’s murder:

            Oh, look outside the window

            There’s a woman being grabbed

            They’ve dragged her to the bushes

            And now she’s being stabbed

            Maybe we should call the cops

            And try to stop the pain

            But Monopoly is so much fun

           I’d hate to blow the game… 

Here’s the rub, however. The New York Times got it wrong.

 Winston Moseley Was a Serial Killer Who Died in Prison

Winston Moseley Was a Serial Killer Who Died in Prison

There were not 3 separate attacks but 2 and Kitty died where no one could see her – in the vestibule of a side stairway to her apartment building. There were far fewer than 38 people who witnessed the early morning attack. That figure came from a top police official to a New York Times editor over lunch and was reported without corroboration. (As the old newsroom axiom went: It was a story, “too good to check out.”) To be sure, there must have been several people who heard Kitty’s screams pierce the early morning hours. But we now know two people called police who dispatched an ambulance, one person yelled out the window, “Leave that girl alone!” and a 70-year-old neighbor named Sophie Farrar risked her own life by following Kitty’s cries and cradling her in that vestibule as the life seeped out of her.

There’s much more to what really happened that night 52 years ago. It has now been pieced together by Kitty’s little brother Bill Genovese, now 68, and film maker, James Solomon, who followed Genovese as he interviewed surviving witnesses and those who knew Kitty best, including her lover, Mary Ann Zielonko. Their documentary, “The Witness” is now in early release.

When asked what drove him to dig back in to his family’s most painful time Bill admits none of the Genovese family attended Mosely’s trial and he always had questions about what had happened. He, for example, never knew Mrs. Farrar testified that his sister did not die alone. That, Bill says, would probably have given his late parents some relief.

Genovese told the Wall Street Journal he has been haunted by, “This horrendous situation of 38 eyewitnesses [watching] like they’re passing popcorn. As a 16-year-old reading that, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible. This can’t be true.” And of course it wasn’t.

The case raises a lot of issues. Our willingness to automatically believe the worst about people. Taking media reports as gospel. And refusing to listen to our common sense that told us – and Bill Genovese – that something about that awful night just did not make logical sense.

I haven’t seen the documentary yet but I hope it provides some redemption for the idea that bystanders of crime are too often heartless. I hope it sparks the Sophie Farrar in all of us so when we ask ourselves, “What would I do…”  you immediately know the answer.

We really are our brother’s keeper even if we’re total strangers.



Leave a Comment