Winston Moseley, whose killing of Kitty Genovese with witnesses surrounding them in the early 1960s set off a furious public debate about a so-called "bystander effect," died this week serving a lifetime prison sentence for the murder.
On the night of March 13, 1964, Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was returning to her home in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens in New York from her job managing a bar when she was stalked, raped, and stabbed by Moseley, who was following her outside of her apartment building.
She loudly exclaimed that she was being attacked and drew the attention of dozens of neighbors and witnesses, even waking some people up. It was reported that 37 people watched for half an hour as Genovese's killer assaulted her—and not one person called the police or attempted to intervene. Two did call the police after the attack, but Genovese died on the way to the hospital.
A spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision confirmed Monday that Moseley, 81, had died March 28, after close to 52 years in prison, making him one of the longest-serving prisoners in the state, at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y.
The Department of Corrections said that a medical examiner will determine the cause of Moseley's death.
Genovese's murder went on to spur research into the so-called "bystander effect": when a group or crowd of people are faced with an emergency or dangerous situation, all involved are less likely to act, because individuals believe "someone else" will do something (so they don't have to). The larger the group of people, the greater the diffusion of responsibility, research suggests. (It's also been theorized that people were hesitant to intervene on Genovese's behalf because she was romantically involved with another woman.)
The case's impression on the public consciousness was wide-reaching. As The New York Times points out, the case took on a "life of its own," manifesting in "an avalanche of academic studies, investigations, films (37), books (Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and Its Private Consequences), even a theatrical production (The Witnesses of Kitty Genovese) and a musical."
Eerily, it even served as the subject of this week's episode of Girls.
The case is perhaps most famous for its ubiquity in introductory college psychology classes. According to the American Psychological Association, the Genovese case is written about in "all 10 of the most popular undergraduate psychology textbooks."
But academics remain divided over its efficacy as an example of the "bystander effect." As the New York Times reported, details from that night in 1964 have been exaggerated. The original reports inflated the number of witnesses, and, according to The New York Times:
None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling.
But the account of 38 witnesses heartlessly ignoring a murderous attack was widely disseminated and took on a life of its own, shocking the national conscience
The soul-searching went on for decades, long after the original errors were debunked, evolving into more parable than fact but continuing to reinforce images of urban Americans as too callous or fearful to call for help, even with a life at stake.
Owing to the questionable origin history, some academics take umbrage with the story's prevelance in undergraduate coursework. Though the Genovese case is "dramatic and compelling," it may not necessarily serve much use outside the scope of undergraduate studies:
"Psychology, unlike many of the other sciences, doesn't have a canon of uncontested facts," says Mark Levine, PhD, of the University of Exeter, who co-authored the American Psychologist article."Because of this, psychology textbooks are not made up of facts students must learn. Instead, they are full of experiments and research techniques. Parables like the Kitty Genovese story serve to link the experiments to the real world. There is thus a strong incentive not to abandon the stories in the textbooks, even if the stories themselves are on shaky ground."
There have even been meta-papers written by professors taking a critical look at the accuracy of the story in textbooks themselves.
Moseley was captured during a burglary a few days after killing Genovese and confessed to her murder as well as the murder of two other women in Queens: Annie Mae Johnson, 24, and Barbara Kralik, 15. It came out during trial that Moseley was a married man who used his wife's job as a nurse on the nightshift to cover his prowling.
He was never tried for those two murders, but was found legally competent and later guilty of Genovese's murder and sentenced to death by electric chair. However, New York state abolished the death penalty the following year. A later appeal reduced his sentence to life imprisonment, and he was denied parole 18 times in the ensuing years.
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Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.