THE WIT­NESS, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, The Screen,

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Mur­der is a na­tional pas­time in this coun­try, and when it hap­pens to a sin­gle per­son it sel­dom causes a ripple in the greater con­scious­ness. One no­table ex­cep­tion was the killing of Kitty Gen­ovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death on the side­walk out­side her Queens apart­ment in 1964. A few days later,

ran a story head­lined: “37 WHO SAW MUR­DER DIDN’T CALL THE PO­LICE: Ap­a­thy at Stab­bing of Queens Woman Shocks In­spec­tor.”

And so was born the con­cept of the “Kitty Gen­ovese syndrome,” the men­tal­ity of peo­ple who turn their backs on nearby vi­o­lence and refuse to get in­volved. Re­turn­ing from her job at a bar in the wee hours of the morn­ing, the story went, Kitty Gen­ovese was stabbed on the side­walk as she ap­proached her home. Her at­tacker fled, and she stag­gered to her build­ing, where the killer re­turned and found her bleed­ing in the foyer. He stabbed her again, and raped her as she lay dy­ing. She screamed and screamed, and peo­ple looked out their win­dows, but no­body called the po­lice and no­body came to her res­cue. Ex­cept that it didn’t ex­actly hap­pen that way. A num­ber of peo­ple have re­vis­ited the story over the years. News or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­di­vid­u­als have dug into it, and even the has re­turned to the crime on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, ac­knowl­edg­ing as re­cently as April of this year that, “The facts, how­ever, turned out to be quite dif­fer­ent.” It is en­tirely pos­si­ble that the pa­per’s editorial board knew that at the time. The re­porter who filed the story ad­mit­ted later to a col­league that some of it didn’t add up, but that to go back and clear up the facts “would have ru­ined the story.” And so Kitty Gen­ovese syndrome and those 37 ap­a­thetic wit­nesses en­tered the folk­lore, and be­came a sta­ple of books and th­e­ses and TV shows.

Bill Gen­ovese was six­teen when Kitty was mur­dered. She was his adored older sis­ter — “No one un­der­stood me like Kitty,” he says — and he never got over the tragedy. As the years went by, he de­vel­oped an ob­ses­sive need to find out the truth of what hap­pened that ter­ri­ble night. Over a decade ago, with film­maker James Solomon in tow, Bill un­der­took his own in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He dug up po­lice records and court tran­scripts, pored over news sto­ries, and be­gan track­ing down ev­ery­body he could find who might shed some light on the case, now more than a half a cen­tury old. It’s not as easy for Bill as it might be for some­one else. He drives around in a spe­cially equipped van with his wheel­chair in the back. Bill Gen­ovese had his legs blown off in a Viet­namese rice paddy a few years af­ter his sis­ter’s mur­der.

He talks to some of the peo­ple who were there, some of the “wit­nesses” de­scribed in the story. Most of them re­port the same thing — the screams woke them up (it was about 3:30 in the morn­ing), they looked out the win­dow, couldn’t see any­thing, and went back to bed, as­sum­ing it was a do­mes­tic dis­pute. A few said they called the po­lice, who told them, “We’ve al­ready got­ten the call.” The cops ap­par­ently as­sumed the same thing as the wit­nesses.

He talks to jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the case, in­clud­ing then-ed­i­tor Abe Rosen­thal of the who wrote a book about it. Why didn’t other news or­ga­ni­za­tions chal­lenge the pub­lic ver­sion of the facts? “Be­cause it was taken se­ri­ously by says Mike Wal­lace, who adds, “It un­doubt­edly sold news­pa­pers.” For­mer NBC re­porter Gabe Press­man calls the re­port­ing “ab­hor­rent to any­one who is in­ter­ested in the truth.”

Bill also talks to Kitty’s friend and up­stairs neigh­bor, who heard her screams, rushed down to the build­ing vestibule, and held Kitty in her arms as she died. The news­pa­per ac­count didn’t men­tion her. He dis­cov­ers that his sis­ter’s room­mate, Mary Ann Zielonko, was her lover. She slept through the mur­der and Kitty’s screams. “I slept with her shirt for a long time,” Zielonko says mourn­fully.

Bill’s sib­lings don’t want any part of this in­ves­ti­ga­tion. They want to let it go, let the past be past. “Why the hell am I do­ing this?” Bill muses. “I guess I can’t stop till it’s over.”

The killer, Winston Mose­ley, died in prison this year at age eighty-one. He had es­caped briefly in 1968, but was re­cap­tured. He got a so­ci­ol­ogy de­gree in prison, and ap­plied many times for pa­role. In 1977 he wrote an op-ed piece in the in which he said of his crime that “it did serve so­ci­ety, urg­ing it as it did to come to the aid of its mem­bers in dis­tress or dan­ger.” He re­fused a di­rect in­ter­view with Bill Gen­ovese, say­ing he was “tired of be­ing ex­ploited,” but later wrote him a let­ter in which he claimed to have been a get­away driver for the real killer, a mob­ster. Mose­ley’s son, a min­is­ter, does sit down with Bill. He has the im­pres­sion that Bill is a mem­ber of the Gen­ovese crime fam­ily and may kill him.

Near the end, Bill con­ducts an ex­per­i­ment at the scene of the crime. It will make you think that Kitty Gen­ovese’s mur­der may not have hap­pened as it was re­ported, but it could have. — Jonathan Richards

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