The 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese is one of the defining events of New York’s post-war social history. Along with the Central Park jogger slaying, the murder of the young Italian-American woman outside an apartment block in Queens has become a symbol of the Big Apple’s descent into lawlessness that began in the 1960’s and continued through the 70’s and 80’s. And, like the Central Park case, its central premise has been found to be flawed.
In the accepted narrative, the Genovese murder occurred in front of an apartment building within sight of 38 witnesses, who watched the gruesome events unfold from behind their curtains. None of them called the cops, preferring “not to get involved”. Indeed, the young woman’s life could have been saved had just one of the apartment-dwellers made the necessary call. When he realized no help was coming, the killer returned and continued his attack, raping and mortally wounding his victim. When her assailant finally left, Genovese bled to death alone, knowing her pleas for help had been ignored.
James Solomon’s “The Witness” charts the attempts of Kitty’s brother Bill to establish the truth behind the sensational news coverage. Just who were the 38 witnesses who hid behind their curtains and refused to intervene? Why didn’t they report the crime? And how did the Genovese killing take on such social significance?
Although most are now dead, we gain valuable insight from the surviving former tenants of the building. While many heard screams, we learn that the actual eye witnesses were unlikely to number more than four. At least one witness claims to have called the police, only to be told that the crime had already been reported. Kitty Genovese didn’t die alone, but in the arms of a friend. Most journalists followed the lead of a single flawed report in the”New York Times,” the city’s primary paper of record of the day.
The killer’s son believed that the Genovese family had links to the feared Mafia clan of the same name. The unhinged killer, Winston Moseley, claimed he had been subjected to racial slurs before the murder and later tried to pin the crime on an accomplice. Kitty herself led a colorful life, with a gay lover and an arrest for shifting gambling cash. Learning about Kitty’s life is one of the movie’s many highlights.
While flawed, the news reports did have positive repercussions. The case was cited as a reason for the formation of neighborhood watch groups and the overhaul of the emergency call system. Serious researchers began to examine the so-called “bystander effect,” and ask why some witnesses of crime decline to intervene.
“The Witness” exposes the half-truths and falsehoods behind a famous episode in a city’s troubled era. While the Kitty Genovese murder was undoubtedly tragic, this compelling documentary shows us it was not particularly distinctive in a high-crime city. The facts of Kitty’s death were manipulated by the media for a simple reason – it made for a better story
Director: James Solomon
Photo Courtesy of The Witnesses Film, LLC.