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Kitty Genovese’s screams still haunt 50 years later

Case became a symbol of urban despair

Kitty Genovese,  a 28-year-old bar manager, was killed in this Queens neighborhood on March 13, 1964. While many neighbors heard her screams, none came to her aid.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager, was killed in this Queens neighborhood on March 13, 1964. While many neighbors heard her screams, none came to her aid.

NEW YORK — Kitty Genovese’s screams for help couldn’t save her on the night she was murdered outside her apartment in 1964. Fifty years later, those screams still echo, a symbol of urban breakdown and city dwellers’ seeming callousness toward their neighbors.

The case ‘‘caught the spirit of the time,’’ said Thomas Reppetto, a police historian. ‘‘It seemed to symbolize that society no longer cared about other people.’’

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Genovese’s random stabbing by Winston Moseley on March 13, 1964, became a sensation when The New York Times reported that ‘‘38 respectable, law-abiding citizens’’ in Queens watched the attack unfold over more than half an hour and didn’t call police during the assault.

While more recent reporting — some of it by the Times itself — found that the number of people who actually saw the murder was greatly exaggerated and that some neighbors did try to help, the Genovese case left its mark on public policy and psychology.

It has been credited with spurring adoption of the 911 system in 1968 as well as ‘‘Good Samaritan’’ laws that give legal protection to people who help those in trouble.

The case also gave rise to research into the ‘‘bystander effect’’ — the phenomenon in which a group of onlookers fails to help someone in distress — and is often featured in psychology textbooks.

Genovese’s fate spurred studies in psychology.

AP/File

Genovese’s fate spurred studies in psychology.

At least five books about Genovese’s killing have come out recently or will be published this year, a testament to the enduring fascination with the case.

‘‘Many people were murdered that year, over 600, but she haunts us because she could have been helped and nobody did,’’ said Peter Hellman, a journalist and author of the e-book ‘‘Fifty Years After Kitty Genovese, Inside the Case That Rocked Our Faith in Each Other.’’

According to police reports and trial testimony, Genovese was a 28-year-old bar manager living in the seemingly safe, well-kept neighborhood of Kew Gardens when she was attacked while returning home from work after 3 a.m.

Moseley later told police he had been driving around looking for a woman to kill. He spotted Genovese, chased her, and stabbed her in the back. Genovese screamed, and a neighbor yelled from his window, ‘‘Leave that girl alone!’’

Moseley retreated to his car but returned minutes later and found Genovese in a hallway at the back of her building, where she had collapsed. He stabbed her several more times and raped her as she lay dying.

The story was not widely reported until A.M. Rosenthal, then metro editor of the Times, had lunch with Police Commissioner Michael Murphy, who told him about the 38 witnesses. Rosenthal assigned a reporter to write a story about the neighbors’ apathy.

‘‘I didn’t want to get involved,’’ one neighbor was quoted as saying.

The story seemed to show that New York was an urban hell where no one would lift a finger to help a neighbor.

‘‘It fit some people’s anti-New York perspective,’’ said Philip Zimbardo, a retired professor of psychology at Stanford University.

Some later accounts of Genovese’s murder challenged the Times’ version.

Kevin Cook, author of ‘‘Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America,’’ argues that only a few neighbors saw enough of the attack to understand much of what was going on, and some of them tried to help.

The Times revisited the case in 2004 on the 40th anniversary. A former prosecutor told the paper then that while far fewer than 38 saw the murder, many others heard the screams.

Catherine Pelonero argues in her book ‘‘Kitty Genovese: A True Account of a Public Murder and its Private Consequences’’ that the reporting from 1964 was fundamentally correct: ‘‘Many people heard the screams and had very good reasonable cause to believe that a crime was taking place.’’

‘‘The most chilling part is that once she reached the back of the building, she was lying down there for several minutes calling for help,’’ Pelonero added. ‘‘She was saying, ‘It’s Kitty! I’m stabbed! Help me!’’’

Moseley was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, a punishment later reduced to life in prison.

Now 79, Moseley is one of the longest-serving inmates in the New York state prison system.

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