This week marks 50 years since the murder of Kitty Genovese outside her apartment building in New York City.
Genovese was stabbed by Winston Moseley in Kew Gardens, Queens, on March 13, 1964, and her murder became a sensation when the New York Times reported that “38 respectable, law-abiding citizens” watched the attack unfold for more than half an hour and did not call police during the assault.
While more recent reporting, the Times included, revealed that the number of bystanders was exaggerated and that people did try to help Genovese, the case had quite an impact on public policy and psychology.
The case has been credited with triggering the adoption of the 911 system in 1968, as well as the establishment of “Good Samaritan” laws, which give legal protection to individuals who help others in trouble.
The murder also spurred further research into the “bystander effect,” which is the phenomenon in which a group of onlookers fails to help someone in distress. The term is widely used in psychology textbooks.
At least five books about the Genovese case were recently published, a testament that the public remains fascinated with the case 50 years later.
According to police reports and trial testimony, Genovese was a 28-year-old bar manager living in Kew Gardens when she was attacked upon returning home from work after 3 a.m.
Moseley later confessed to police he had been driving around looking for a woman to kill. He saw Genovese, chased her and stabbed her in the back. Genovese screamed, and a neighbor reportedly yelled from his window, “Leave that girl alone!”
Moseley hid in his car, but returned minutes later and found Genovese in a hallway at the back of her building, where she had collapsed. He stabbed her several more times and raped her as she lay dying.
The story was not widely reported until A.M. Rosenthal, then metro editor of the Times, had lunch with Police Commissioner Michael Murphy, who told him about the 38 witnesses. Rosenthal assigned a reporter to write a story about the neighbors’ apathy.
Some later accounts of Genovese’s murder challenged the Times’ initial version.
Kevin Cook, author of Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America, argues that only a few neighbors saw enough of the attack to understand much of what was going on, and some of them did try to help.
The Times revisited the case in 2004 on the 40th anniversary. A former prosecutor told the paper then that while far fewer than 38 saw the murder, many others heard the screams.
Moseley was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and his sentence was later reduced to life in prison.
He escaped during a transfer to a hospital in Buffalo in 1968, took five people hostage and raped a woman in front of her husband before surrendering to police. Moseley, now 79, is one of the longest-serving inmates in the New York state prison system.
Genovese is discussed in the new books as a compelling, upbeat young woman.
The oldest in an Italian-American family of five children, she grew up in Brooklyn and stayed in New York when the rest of her family moved to Connecticut. She had been living with a partner, Mary Ann Zielonko, for about a year, at the time of her death.
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