Diane Dimond: What would you do as a witness to a 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 may 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 Genovese’s Queens, New York apartment building had witnessed the 3 a.m. attack and did nothing in response to her repeated screams for help. No one called the police, the paper reported, during the grisly 35-minute attack in which the killer retreated and then returned to Genovese three 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 were a murder in progress?
Behavioral science professors back in the mid-60s used Genovese’s notorious case in class to explore what was coined “the bystander effect,” the reluctance of witnesses in a crowd to help 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,” which began with a callous reference to Genovese’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.
There were not three separate attacks, but two, and Kitty died where no one could see the attack in its entirety — 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 was reported 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 Genovese’s piercing screams the early morning hours. But we now know two people called the police, one person yelled out the window, “Leave that girl alone!” and a 70-year-old neighbor woman named Sophia Farrar risked her own life by following Genovese’s cries and cradling her in her arms 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 Genovese’s younger brother Bill Genovese, now 68, and filmmaker James Solomon, who followed Genovese as he interviewed surviving witnesses and those who knew her 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, Genovese admits that no one in the Genovese family attended Mosely’s trial, and he always had questions about what happened. He, for example, never knew that Farrar testified that his sister did not die alone. That, Genovese 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 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 Sophia Farrar in all of us, so that when we ask ourselves, “What would I do?” we immediately know the answer.
We really are our brother’s keeper, even if we’re total strangers.