THE WITNESS, documentary, not rated, The Screen,
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