Obituaries

Winston Moseley, 81, killer of Kitty Genovese, dies in prison

Austin Street in the Queens borough of New York was the site of the infamous rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in March 1964.
EDDIE HAUSNER/New York Times
Austin Street in the Queens borough of New York was the site of the infamous rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in March 1964.

NEW YORK — Winston Moseley, who stalked, raped, and killed Kitty Genovese in a prolonged knife attack in New York in 1964 while neighbors failed to act on her desperate cries for help — a nightmarish tableau that came to symbolize urban apathy in America — died March 28 in prison. He was 81.

Mr. Moseley, a psychopathic serial killer and necrophiliac, died at the maximum security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y. He had been imprisoned for almost 52 years, since July 7, 1964, and was one of the state’s longest serving inmates.

Mr. Moseley was condemned to die in the electric chair, but in 1967, two years after New York state abolished most capital punishments, he won an appeal that reduced his sentence to an indeterminate life term.

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While at Attica Correctional Facility, in 1968, he escaped, raped a woman, and held hostages before being recaptured. He joined in the 1971 Attica uprising; earned a college degree in 1977; and was rejected 18 times at parole hearings, the last time in 2015.

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A half-century after the killing of Genovese, which began in the dead of night on a deserted street in Queens and ended in the vestibule of her building, the case still resonates with terror and collective regret in the popular imagination. It has been sustained by films, books, and debates over the responsibilities of citizens who witness a crime.

New York Daily News/File
Kitty Genovese’s murder became infamous after it was reported that neighbors ignored her cries for help.

Ghastly as the details of Mr. Moseley’s attack were — selecting Genovese at random, stabbing her at least 14 times as she pleaded for help, retreating into the shadows as lights went on in apartments overhead, returning to rape and kill her — they might not have placed the case, or Mr. Moseley’s name, into the annals of crime.

It was one of 636 murders in the city that year. The New York Times ran four paragraphs on it.

Two weeks later, the Times published a more extensive, though flawed, front-page account quoting the police and Genovese’s neighbors.

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“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens,” it began.

“Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.”

“I didn’t want to get involved,” a witness said, using a phrase that was thought to encapsulate the age.

While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous.

The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. 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.

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There were two attacks, not three. And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.

But the account of witnesses heartlessly ignoring a murderous attack was widely disseminated and took on a life of its own, shocking the national conscience and starting an avalanche of academic studies, investigations, films, books, even a theatrical production, and a musical.

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.

Psychologists and criminologists called the reluctance of witnesses to involve themselves the “bystander effect,” or the “Kitty Genovese Syndrome.”

In response, some communities organized neighborhood-watch patrols. In New York, an emergency call to the police was simplified later in 1964; the unified 911 system was not established until 1968.

Mr. Moseley seemed an unlikely serial killer. Soft-spoken, intelligent, with no criminal record, he was 29, a married father of two who owned his home in Queens, and operated business machines in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Later, in confessions and testimony, he said he had driven around late at night seeking victims, and had killed three women, raped eight, and committed 30 or 40 burglaries.