Matthew T. Mangino: Kitty Genovese’s killer dies in New York prison
One of New York’s longest serving inmates, Winston Moseley, died at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. He was 81 years old when he died on March 28 — he had spent 52 years in prison.
Mosely, a psychopathic serial killer, may not be a familiar name to most Americans but his victim — Kitty Genovese — has become an iconic figure in criminal justice lore.
Initially, Genovese’s murder in 1964 generated little notoriety. Two weeks after her death the New York Times wrote an article that ignited international indignation.
Written by Times reporter Martin Gansberg, the article began “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens (Queens).” Genovese was stabbed 14 times, raped and murdered.
The public outrage hit a boiling point when an unidentified neighbor was quoted in the article saying she did not call the police during the attack because, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Many saw the story of Genovese’s murder as a sign of moral decline and callousness of life in big cities, particularly New York City.
Psychologists and criminologists called the reluctance of witnesses to involve themselves the “bystander effect,” or the “Kitty Genovese syndrome.” Study after study uncovered the theory of “diffusion of responsibility” — people in crowds are less likely to step forward and help a victim.
The prevailing sentiment was that Genovese had been failed by her neighbors and the institutions in place in her community, her death set in motion efforts by officials to create a unified emergency response protocol.
“The 911 system grows more or less directly from the outcry from Kitty Genovese’s death,” wrote author Kevin Cook in his book, “Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America.”
The Times article made Kitty Genovese an iconic figure in the research of crime and violence, but much of what we heard about the event — as with most legends — is exaggerated or simply not true.
Moseley’s obituary in the New York Times described the 1964 article about Genovese’s murder in this way, “The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help.”
The truth behind the Kitty Genovese case and the bystander effect, a 2007 article in the American Psychologist, acknowledges that the Genovese case “inspired a rich, persuasive evidence base for the phenomenon whereby being in a group can dilute people’s sense of individual responsibility.”
The harrowing idea that 38 witnesses did nothing has been debunked. After Moseley’s trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death, Assistant District Attorney Charles Skoller said “we only found about half a dozen (witnesses) that saw what was going on, that we could use.”
Some of those witnesses were unsure about what they were really observing. One witness said Genovese and her killer were “standing close together, not fighting or anything.”
None of the witnesses reported actually seeing the stabbing. Some of the apartment residents did intervene, in fact the murderer abandoned his first attack after one of the witnesses shouted at him. This led to the actual murder taking place inside a nearby building where none of the trial witnesses could see. A woman did go into the building’s vestibule and hold Genovese in her arms until police arrived.
There were 636 murders in New York City in 1964, yet the words of one neighbor — “I didn’t want to get involved” — still haunts us today. Genovese’s abandonment on the streets of Queens by her friends and neighbors may not have been exactly as described, but it still resonates with Americans whether they live in big cities or small towns.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.