Review of ‘The Witness’ on PBS: a personal look at Kitty Genovese’s murder

PBS Independent Lens airs The Witness about the Kitty Genovese murder case half a century ago.

CLICK on this image to visit the PBS “Independent Lens” website, which includes ways to see the documentary on TV or through online streaming.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s—or enjoys TV legal dramas—probably has heard of the infamous Kitty Genovese murder case. She was the pretty young woman who was knifed repeatedly on a street in the New York City borough of Queens as dozens of witnesses refused to help her—or even to call police.

Her tragic death half a century ago was seen as the epitome of American apathy. The outrage helped move government officials to develop our national 9-1-1 emergency calling system to make it easier for crime witnesses to reach police. The shocking apathy of the witnesses has been explored repeatedly in prime time on network news series like 20/20, plus at least three episodes of the Law & Order TV series, plus Perry Mason—and a host of other popular TV shows.

So, with the start of a turbulent new year in the United States—with questions raised about whether Americans truly care about the vulnerable among us—the PBS Independent Lens series is airing the powerful 90-minute documentary created by Kitty’s younger brother, Bill.

At this point, after books and TV series and countless newspaper and magazine stories, it’s hard to imagine that there’s much left to surprise us—or even to move us to greater compassionate action. But The Witness, a title that refers to Bill’s personal crusade to create this documentary as a final witness to his sister’s life and death, almost certainly will move you and likely will surprise you as well.

That’s perhaps enough of a review to prompt you to search out the film on PBS. There are a number of ways to see this documentary, even if your local PBS station does not carry the Independent Lens series. You can learn more by visiting the PBS Web hub for Independent Lens and The Witness.

Thought-provoking surprises

There are, indeed, surprises in this film for most of us. Here are a a few of them:

WHY!?! It is startling to learn that we still don’t know—even after half a century of exhaustive research into this case—exactly why Winston Moseley (who died in prison in 2016 at age 81) murdered Kitty. We do know that it was a horrific crime. It’s also true that Moseley was able to finish off Kitty because of the apathy of witnesses. He attacked her once on the sidewalk with a knife. Then, he fled. After it was clear that no one would help her, he was able to return to where she had collapsed in a doorway and continue his attack.

But, it’s still uncertain why he killed her. The attack appears to have been a lethal sexual assault. However, in a bizarre letter to Kitty’s brother Bill before his death, Moseley suggests a different motive. Then, in this new film, Moseley’s adult son gives us yet another strange motive. You’ll be left wondering exactly why it happened in the first place.

KITTY WAS GAY, and her sexual orientation seems to have been overlooked in most earlier versions of her life story. Moseley’s attack does not appear to have been an anti-gay hate crime. But, the fact that Kitty wanted freedom from her conservative family is the underlying reason she remained in the city after the rest of her family moved to a quiet part of Connecticut. It’s also one reason her family had ambivalent attitudes toward her, after her death. It appears to have contributed to the confusion over her life—and ultimately to her death.

THE DEATH PENALTY is a central issue in this case. Moseley managed to avoid a death sentence—but there are troubling questions about the decision to leave him alive in a prison cell. At one point, he managed to escape from prison and he carried out additional attacks. Once behind bars again, he was able to spin a series of manipulative lies, including some outrageous fabrications that caused ongoing pain for Kitty’s family. However you feel about the death penalty, this film raises troubling questions about the sentencing of predators like Moseley. Perhaps the world would have been far better if Mosley had not lived a long life in prison.

FINALLY, WHAT ABOUT THE ACTUAL WITNESSES? Overall, the reported “38 witnesses” did not respond in a helpful way as Kitty was dying. We now know that the situation was different than most of us had assumed. Most of these 38 people were not eye witnesses. Some only heard a distant scream. It is true that at least a few of the infamous 38 did glimpse the assault and then turned a cold shoulder to Kitty.

What is most surprising about the interviews with the witnesses who are still alive is that one courageous “housewife” actually did drop everything and raced to try to help Kitty. Somehow, this one friend who risked everything to reach the dying woman seems to have been invisible in earlier popular accounts.

Bill’s long quest to find that now-elderly woman—and meet with her on camera—caps the film with a note of hope and compassion.

Consider: The Witness also is terrific for small-group discussion on a wide range of issues. Don’t miss it!

 

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