Opinion: If you see something, say something

By Ron Leir

On March 28, a New York State inmate named Winston Moseley died at age 81 after spending more than half a century behind bars for the killing of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese on March 13, 1964.

In the early morning hours, Genovese was enroute home from her job as manager of a bar in Queens, N.Y., and approaching the rear entrance to her Kew Gardens apartment when she was attacked by Moseley – who had followed her home – with a hunting knife and was badly hurt.

Lying on the ground, she screamed for help and, initially, Moseley was scared off by a neighbor who shouted at him to get away but, when no one came out to investigate or help the stricken young woman, Moseley returned and repeatedly stabbed Genovese and raped her, leaving her to die.

Two weeks after the fatal attack, The New York Times ran a front page story recounting how “… respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

The article went on to say that, “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.”

While the article overstated the number of witnesses, level of awareness and how many times the victim was attacked (twice, not three), the incident and the account of what happened “took on a life of its own,” as noted by Times writer Robert D. McFadden.

Psychologists used the expression the “Genovese syndrome” to refer to the fear of bystanders to get involved by helping the victim of a crime.

It led to the U.S. adoption of 9-1-1 as a national telephone emergency system in 1968, although many cities didn’t get around to using the system until as late as the 1980s.

Moseley, who confessed to raping and killing Genovese and two other Queens residents, a 24-year-old woman he shot and fatally burned in her apartment, and a 15-year-old girl he fatally stabbed in her parents’ home, escaped in 1968 from a Buffalo hospital he was moved to for treatment of a self-inflicted wound, wrested a gun from a guard, took five hostages and raped a woman before his recapture and return to the Attica Correctional Facility where he participated in the 1971 uprising. He died at the Clinton Correctional Center in Dannemora, N.Y., the same facility from which convicted killers Richard Mott and Daniel Sweat temporarily escaped last June.

He was originally sentenced to death but that was changed to a life sentence after an appeals court concluded that the trial court failed to allow testimony as to Moseley’s mental condition.

On 18 separate occasions, Moseley – who earned a college degree in prison – was denied parole.

Kitty Genovese was randomly chosen by her attacker so it’s questionable whether local authorities could have done anything to have stopped that crime from happening.

And, since Moseley’s confessions to the previous killings came after the fact, police presumably had nothing in hand that would have tipped them off to Moseley’s dangerous behavior.

That’s why when police remind us, “if you see something, say something,” we should take that advice seriously so that a forewarned peace officer can possibly help avert a crime before it happens.

And so that we don’t have to worry about falling victim to the “Genovese syndrome.

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