Kitty Genovese case: the murder in front of several witnesses that created a term in psychology and the 911 line

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A new term in social psychology and a unified emergency phone emerged after the murder of a young woman in New York under the gaze of several neighbors in 1964.

In the early hours of March 13 of that year, the 28-year-old woman was returning home after working in a bar, when a man stabbed her twice in the back under the windows of her residential building.

One of the neighbors thought it was a family quarrel and yelled from the window to leave the girl alone. The killer got scared and fled. Kitty, badly injured, struggled to get to her apartment.

However, ten minutes later, the killer returned. He found the exhausted woman in the back lobby of the building. There he stabbed her several more times, raped her, robbed her and left. Although the execution of the crime lasted more than half an hour, only a neighbor, Sophia Farrar, came out to help Kitty, already after the second attack. She waited for the ambulance next to her, but it was too late.

The killer was arrested days later. He was identified as Winston Moseley, 29, husband and father of three children. During interrogation, he confessed to the crime and two other murders and rapes, as well as forty robberies. He had no reason to attack Kitty nor did he know her; he was a maniac. Psychiatric examinations concluded that he was a necrophiliac.

The case became known several weeks later, when The New York Times published an article titled ’37 They saw a murder and did not call the police ‘. Although the newspaper exaggerated both the number of witnesses and their inaction, the publication scandalized the public. A particular effect had the words of a neighbor who said that he did not contact the agents so as not to “be implicated.”

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Spectator effect

Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané decided to delve into the facts. In an experiment whose results were published in 1968, they found that the more people witness an emergency situation, the less likely it is that one of them will help the victim: in the case of a witness, the probability is 85%; if there are three, it drops to 31%.

Not content with moralistic explanations, the researchers noted: “They generally claim that the people who do not intervene are in some way different from the rest of us, that they are ‘alienated by industrialization’, ‘dehumanized by urbanization’, ‘depersonalized by living in a cold society ‘or’ psychopaths’. […] However, they did not predict the speed or likelihood of help, “the scientists concluded.


Another consequence of the assassination was the creation in the United States of a unified emergency line. His need became clear when one of the witnesses said that he did not call the police because he did not know how to do it. As a result, in 1968 the AT&T company opened the 911 line.

As for Moseley, he was sentenced to death, but the verdict was later lowered to life in prison. He died in prison in 2016.

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