1. Introduction

    Kitty Genovese takes up a pretty big role in American society. She's introduced in psychology courses; in sociology courses; in criminal law courses. All in all, what everyone wants to say after the incident is: how horribly and uselessly she died.

  2. Facts
    1. Timeline of Events

      Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was a bar manager at a bar in Queens, New York City, called Ev's Eleventh Hour Club. She drove a red Fiat to work and back. On March 13, 1964, Kitty parked her car by the Long Island Railroad parking lot (Kew Gardens stop) and was walking home when Winston Mosley caught up with her and began stabbing her.

      Kitty, injured, started screaming, "Oh my God! He stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!" Winston fled when the lights went on and a man shouted to leave Kitty alone, but later returned when there seemed to be no help forthcoming.

      By this time, Kitty had made it to a locked doorstep. He stabbed her again and fled again when her cries ("I'm dying! I'm dying!") caused lights to turn on again in the neighborhood.

      At 3:25 AM, Kitty managed to make it to the rear of her apartment building and entered through a unlocked door that was a hallway that led to the 2nd floor of a building, falling to the floor. By this time, Winston had returned again, and after methodically testing all the doors, found Kitty and raped her, taking her money with him before stabbing her one final time.

      At 3:50 the first call was received by the police from one of the witnesses to the murder, Karl Ross. By the time police reached Kitty, it was too late; she was already dead. When asked why he didn't call earlier, Karl Ross' response was, "I didn't want to get involved."

      In total, there were 38 witnesses to the murder (note: several articles mention 37 witnesses; later articles mention 38; it is unclear who is right).

      During the trial, Winston Mosley pled "not guilty," though his lawyer changed it afterward to "not guilty by reason of insanity." However, the psychiatrist judged Mosley to be sane. On June 11, 1964, Winston Mosley was found guilty of murder in the first degree. Though initially given the death sentence, the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment after the trial went to appeal with New York's Court of Appeals (who found that evidence of Mosley's mental state should have been admitted in trial).

      Over the years in prison, Mosley became the first prisoner to obtain his bachelors while in prison, and began to believe that his crimes were his "service" to society, to wake them up. On November 13, 1995, Judge Fredric Block of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn denied a motion for a new trial for Winston Mosley. Winston was over 60 at the time.

    2. A Killer's Point of View - Winston Mosley's Confession

      Note: Winston wasn't too keen on this whole paragraph thing. I broke it up to make it more readable.

      "I got in the car and drove to Queens Boulevard and Yellowstone Avenue and I started cruising the neighborhood looking for a woman alone in a car. About three o’clock I did manage to find one on the street, I don’t know, say about ten blocks from her house and I followed her. She drove to a parking lot and stopped her car. As soon as she stopped hers, I was following her and I stopped mine. While she was getting out of her car, I had already gotten out of mine and I ran into the parking lot before she really got out of the car. She got out of the car and she saw me and she was frightened right away and she started to run.

      "I ran after her and stabbed her twice in the back. Somebody yelled and I was frightened. So I jumped back into the car, backed the car to the nearest cross street and backed down this street about half a block. I decided that even though the person had yelled, they weren’t going to come down the street to see what happened to her and I noticed as I was backing the car back that the woman had gotten up and appeared to be going around the corner. So I came back thinking that I would find her.

      "I came back into the parking lot and thought maybe she had gone to the train station. She wasn’t in the train station. It was locked. So I said, “Well,” to myself, “Well, perhaps she is in one of these hallways.” I tried the first door in this row of houses and the door was locked. The second door I tried opened, I opened, and there she was laying on the floor. When she saw me, she started screaming again. So I stabbed her a few more times. She seemed to quite down (sic) a little bit. So she wasn’t really struggling that hard with me now. So I lifted up her skirt and I cut off her girdle. I even cut or pulled her panties off and she had a sanitary pad and I picked that out and threw it away and I stabbed her again in the stomach. I cut off her brassiere and I don’t remember whether I cut her blouse or not and I took one of the false pads that she had in the brassiere because it had blood on it and I touched it with my finger and I didn’t want to leave it. I attempted to have sexual intercourse with her, but I was unable to as I was impotent. I did have an orgasm, however. I looked through her pockets and I took everything she had in her pockets, which were some keys, some make-up, a bottle of pills and $49 she had in cash.

      "While this was going on, as I mentioned, I thought that I heard somebody opening a door upstairs and, as a matter of fact, I could hear a mumbled voice upstairs, but when I looked up the stairs, I didn’t see anybody, and as I thought nobody actually comes down the stairs, so I looked up there one more time before I went out the door and I still didn’t see anybody and I came out the door and instead of going back through the parking lot, I walked around the block and came back on the opposite side of the street.

      "The only thing I saw was a milk truck with a deliveryman in it and I walked around to the car and back to the street, parallel to the street that I first followed her on, and I started driving home. As I drove home, I threw out the keys, the bottle of make-up and the pills that I had I had thrown out right by the parking lot and the case that the pills were in I threw out on the street as I was driving along. I go to Hillside Avenue and Van Wyck Expressway and stopped and threw out this rubber false pad from the brassiere that I picked up.

      "From there I went straight home."

  3. Aftermath

    1. Psychological Analysis

      What most people do, when hearing about this sort of thing, react with horror - not so much towards the crime, but rather at the actions of the bystanders. To be more precise, the inaction of the bystanders. It's one of those questions that are asked over and over again - why didn't anyone call for help?; it's not that hard to pick up the phone; what kind of people are they to ignore such a thing?; and so on and so forth.

      It's very sad, but the truth of the matter is, the reactions of the bystanders are horrible but are the standard, not the exception. This lack of action is one of the reasons why Kitty Genovese is taught in intro to psychology courses - she makes an excellent, though graphic, introduction to the concept of diffusion of responsibility: a peculiar phenomenon of inaction within a group of people.

      A person is much more likely to help when he/she feels that he/she is the only one around to help; the idea is that the responsibility entirely borne by them. In a group of people, a person is more likely to think that someone else has assumed responsibility. There is also a certain amount of social pressure involved not to get involved.

      However, it does not stop the fact that resulting excuses heard sound shockingly callous: "We thought it was a lovers' quarrel." "Frankly, we were afraid." "I didn't want to get my husband involved." And perhaps worst of all:

      "I don't know."

    2. Legal Analysis

      Kitty Genovese's case is brought up in criminal law usually during discussions over "anti-Good Samaritan" laws: a concept where a person is held liable for not giving any aid. It was thought that there ought to be some way to hold the witnesses of her murder somehow guilty for not attempting to make aid, but legally, this has a lot of problems.

      In certain European jurisdictions, such as France and Germany, there is a certain mindset to punish those who simply walk away from a crime:

      Whosoever does not render help in cases of accident, common danger, or necessity although help is needed and can be provided in the circumstances without danger of serious injury to the person and without violation of other important duties, will be punished by imprisonment up to one year or by fine.

      Article 323c of German Criminal Code
      cited by Criminal Law And Its Processes
      full citation below

      However, Anglo-Saxon tradition has typically resisted on establishing these laws, if only for the logistical problems of enforcement. How do you determine how someone is liable for a completely separate incident?; How close by must they be?; What kind of aid must be rendered?; and so forth. As I understand it, enforcement of such anti-Good Samaritan laws in said European jursidictions is very lax for similar reasons.

    3. Other

      The outcry after news of Kitty's murder was enormous. Many, horrified at the callousness of the neighbors, asserted that it was something that could only happen in a big, callous city like New York City. Others blamed violence in television; the graphic murder was so like those portrayed on TV that the witnesses could only watch, as if they were watching just another show.

      What is not often mentioned is that during the time of Kitty Genovese's murder, the call to the police was not the common number we know today (911), but rather a local number. This murder, among other things, did push for a universal help number.

Here's my sources list again. Long list, probaly imprecise citing.

  • Winston's Mosley Confession, 1964 - cited in whole above. I don't think this needs a copyright.
  • Fried, Joseph P. "Killer of Kitty Genovese Is Denied a New Trial", New York Times, November 14, 1995.
  • Gansberg, Martin. "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call The Police", New York Times, March 27, 1964.
  • Haines, Leah. "What Would You Do?", Dominion, June 15, 2000.
  • Kadish; Schulhofer. Criminal Law and Its Processes: Cases and Materials, Aspen Publishers, 7th edition 2001. You knew there had to be a legal casebook in here somewhere.

37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police
Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector

As tokki wisely observes, Kitty Genovese is an unavoidable topic in the social sciences and law enforcement. Indeed, I have encountered her story in sociology, criminal justice, psychology, and social psychology courses. Along with the Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram's obedience experiment, it is one of a holy trinity of studies in social psychology. The three were recently joined by the Abu Ghraib Prison abuse scandal in social psychology's canon of infamy. However, further research suggests that perhaps the Kitty Genovese case ought to be put into context and demystified. We should also keep in mind that, although Zimbardo and Milgram conducted genuine experiments that were questionable even by the standards of their time, their research should probably not be lumped together with criminal activity.

Sanity, it seems, sometimes has to come from quarters far removed from the emotional scene of a crime--in this case, the other side of the pond. A study by Rachel Manning of the University of the West of England, and Mark Levine and Alan Collins of Lancaster University was published in 2007. Aptly subtitled "the parable of the 38 witnesses," the researchers put the case under the proverbial microscope and confirmed what others dared not utter: all your textbooks are wrong, and the scientific establishment was uncritically teaching the product of journalistic sensationalism for 40-odd years.

The primary source of the Kitty Genovese story was the press. Second and third in line were the NYPD and the adversarial process of the murderer's trial. Neither may lay claim to having all the facts. Let's keep in mind that the most used source, the press, is the least reliable and the least apt to correct itself when wrong. Yesterday's news gets forgotten, not corrected. The New York Times, source of the first account of the 38 (or 37) witnesses, has spent 43 years referencing the case. The most salient aspect of the case these days, it seems, is that Genovese's former roommate has since outed Kitty as having been her lesbian lover. A March 2007 article in the paper very learnedly states that her death "became a national symbol of urban anomie," lest it be accused of a lack of sociological jargon.

The Genovese case is cited as a canonical example of the bystander effect in the context of emergency helping. The research rot can be traced at least as far back as 1968, when Darley & Latane opened what was to be a seminal paper on bystander behaviour and diffusion of responsibility by citing what the press had reported about the Genovese case. As nobody else thought of challenging them on the details of the case, the rest is history (as well as being a monument to the failure of peer review). As Manning, Levine, and Collins observe, "the story itself has become a modern parable, the telling of which has served to limit the scope of enquiry into emergency helping."

The facts to keep in mind, according to Manning, Levine, and Collins are as follows:

  • A minority of the 38 supposed witnesses were in a position to be eyewitnesses. Of these, even fewer were actually able to see anything at 3:15 at night
  • Nobody was in a position to see both locations in which Genovese was attacked
  • Nobody can name the 38 witnesses. There may have been fewer or more
  • The prosecutor in the trial found it next to impossible to find reliable witnesses to use in court
  • At least one person did yell at the attacker and temporarily scared him off
  • At least one person did call the police
  • There was no 911 system in 1964. You called the local precinct. The response depended on the disposition of the officer who picked up the phone
  • Austin Street was not exactly known for being peaceful

In addition to this, some scientific questions, particularly questions of method, arise from an examination of the way in which the case has been treated in the literature:

  • Do 38, or however many, people separated by walls qualify in any way as a social entity such as a crowd?
  • Assuming that they do, can deindividuation be considered a factor in the group's supposed inaction?
  • Assuming that they do not, would a thorough examination provide data on more than just the percentage of individuals who exhibited helping behaviour?
  • What did each witness see, hear, and do?
  • What was the role of personal responsibility in the local culture?
  • What was the influence of the prevalent attitudes regarding gender and violence on the witnesses?
  • Did anyone conduct interviews with the witnesses less than decades after the event?

For the most part, I think that the Kitty Genovese case is overcited and nonexistent lessons are derived from it. In the study of helping behaviour, one could find many more useful cases to study in the context of the bystander effect and of diffusion of responsibility: the hazing death of Matthew Carrington in 2005, a new psychology class favourite, thanks to what was until yesterday Court TV and the relatively straightforward nature of the case; the Deletha Word case in Detroit in 1995, which is much more complicated but of which there are much clearer accounts; for the extra outrage factor, try the 2007 Christine Lakinski case of some yob in Hartlepool urinating on a dying woman in the street instead of helping her, visually documented by the perpetrator's own friends as "YouTube material." Give me a bit more time and I'll come up with a list longer than the list of real witnesses to the Genovese murder.

Kitty Genovese may have been a tragic case in a cold, heartless city but the myth surrounding her murder needs to be brought into perspective and seen for what it is: a case that's complicated, not what it appears to be, and many details of which have been lost in time. Manning, Levine, and Collins do well in examining the parable as such and not trying to reinterpret the Genovese case itself. It says much more about the social behaviour of scientists than it does about that of the urban population of 20th century New York City.

Darley, J. M., Latane, B. (1968). Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 8(4, Pt.1), 377-383.
Stokes, M., Zeman, D. (1995). The Shame of the City. Newsweek, Vol. 126 (10), 26
Manning R., Levine, M. & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese Murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62, 555-562.
Powell, M. (2007). In a City's Vast Memory, Tragedies Not Kept Vivid May Fade to a Glimmer. New York Times, 18 March 2007.
BBC News (2007) Man jailed for urinating on woman. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tees/7063366.stm

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