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‘The Witness’ documentary takes another look at Kitty Genovese murder

Kitty Genovese in her grandparents’ backyard in Brooklyn in 1959.
Kitty Genovese in her grandparents’ backyard in Brooklyn in 1959. Courtesy of The Witnesses Film, LLC. / Photo by Andrew Giordano

Even the most casual true crime fans (and I’ve been one since way before “Serial” or “Making a Murderer”) know the story of Kitty Genovese, the 28-year-old woman stabbed to death on the street outside her Queens, NY, apartment building in 1964, while 38 witnesses reportedly looked on without offering or calling for help.

The case became a depressing symbol of the apathy of American city dwellers – New Yorkers, in particular – toward their fellow man. But how much of that infamous story is really true and how much is myth?

Documentary filmmaker James Solomon followed Kitty’s brother, Bill Genovese, a double-amputee Vietnam veteran, along on his journey to learn more about his sister’s murder and about the people who reportedly stood by and let it happen.

In “The Witness,” which airs at 10 p.m. Monday on UNC-TV, Bill goes back to the Kew Gardens neighborhood and to Kitty’s apartment building to see where the crime happened and talk to people who were there. He gets a tour of the murder scene by the son of Kitty’s friend and neighbor. He studies police reports and newspaper clippings. He talks to a reporter who covered the murder and who questioned the veracity of some media reports even at the time (let’s just say The New York Times does not look good here). He hires an actress to recreate his sister’s screams on the street late at night, so he can hear for himself how loudly she may have called for help. He even attempts to talk to Winston Moseley, the man who killed Kitty and who is still imprisoned for the crime. Moseley declined to talk to him (offering instead a letter with a wild alternate version of the crime), but his son sits down for an awkward conversation that likely leaves both men extremely unsatisfied.

Solomon not only dives along with Bill into the events surrounding Kitty’s murder, but also shows the profound effect Kitty’s murder had on Bill’s life; how his belief in the media’s version of events shaped his personality and therefore his future. We also see Bill’s family push back pretty hard against his mission – some worried about him, some angry that he’s dredging up a painful past.

“The Witness” is fascinating enough for its careful reporting of the circumstances surrounding the infamous murder, but equally as a study of the impact of crimes on those left behind.

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