The horrific killing of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in New York in 1964 inspired research into what’s known in social psychology as the Bystander Phenomenon – our increased disinclination to intervene when in the company of others. That’s because early reports told how 38 witnesses to Genovese’s murder did nothing to help. But in fact it’s now clear that several people did intervene. So the tragedy that inspired research into the Bystander Phenomenon is actually a bad example of that real phenomenon.
But it’s not time yet to leave the sad story alone. As psychologist Saul Kassin documents in Perspectives on Psychological Science, hidden in the story in plain sight all these decades is an example of another important psychological principle: the power of false confessions. Moreover, in another twist, details have emerged recently of how a few days after her murder, Genovese’s killer, Winston Moseley, was initially detained by members of the public – ironically, given how the Genovese case inspired research into bystander apathy, these bystanders chose to act.
Kassin’s perspective on all this is that he has spent years studying the psychology of false confessions, including the surprising number of people who make them, as shown for example by the high proportion of people exonerated by new DNA evidence whose past confessions turn out to have been false. His research has also shown the power of false confessions to sway jurors and witnesses (for instance, on hearing a false confession, witnesses for the defence often lose faith in their own testimony).
This ties into the murder of Kitty Genovese because it seems highly likely that her killer, Winston Moseley, was also responsible for the murder of 15-year-old Barbara Kralik a year earlier, a crime for which high-school drop-out Alvin Mitchell was already on trial.
Mitchell had confessed to Kralik’s murder – so he must have done it, right? Well, his confession came following more than 50 hours of interrogation and he soon recanted it. His first trial ended in a hung jury (11 votes for acquittal, 1 for conviction). However, the power of a confession, even one that’s retracted, does not fade easily. On retrial, Mitchell was found guilty and served 12 years, 8 months in prison. He insisted on his innocence throughout his prison stay and does so today.
Kassin makes a highly persuasive case for Mitchell being innocent of Kralik’s murder and the case being an exemplar of the power of false confessions (if you can get access, it’s worth reading Kassin’s entire article to appreciate the full detail of the seemingly flawed case against Mitchell).
Kassin believes Moseley is the true killer of Kralik. Relevant here is that after his arrest for killing Genovese, Mosely also confessed to two more murders. He said he had killed 24-year-old Annie Mae Johnson one month earlier (this confession was corroborated in dramatic fashion after his account of the murder matched the wounds to Johnson’s body), and he said he had killed Kralik. Crucially, Moseley confessed with the same certainty and detail to both these additional murders while he steadfastly denied being responsible for another double-murder that was unsolved at the time time. Mosely repeated his confession to Kralik’s murder in Michell’s first trial. However, for some reason, he refused to provide the same testimony in the re-trial.
In 2014, Kassin travelled to rural Vermont to meet Michell, now in his 70s. Mitchell recalled how he was threatened and intimidated during the police interrogations. “I would have confessed to killing the president because them people had scared me to death,” he said.
“There are lessons to be learned from this part of the [Kitty Genovese] story,” writes Kassin. “The scientific study of police interrogations and confessions is well grounded in basic psychology … Collectively, this research has shown that innocent people can be induced to confess crimes they did not commit, that judges and juries have difficulty assessing confessions as a matter of common sense, and that reforms are needed to mitigate both sets of problems.”
What of the public bystanders who detained Moseley? This, says Kassin, is the “irony that slipped through the cracks”. Five days after he killed Genovese, Mosely was attempting to burgle a home in New York in broad daylight. A neighbour confronted him and disbelieving his excuse (Mosely said he was helping the owners move house) he incapacitated Moseley’s van and alerted another neighbour. This second neighbour called the police and Moseley was soon apprehended by officers nearby; within hours he had confessed to a string of burglaries and three murders, writes Kassin.
“Somehow this part of the Genovese story went unnoticed and without fanfare,” says Kassin. “In a most fitting, if not ironic, conclusion to Moseley’s crime spree, the perpetrator whose actions spawned the narrative of the non responsive urban bystander was capture precisely because of the intervention of urban bystanders!”
Image: This photograph of Kitty Genovese was used in newspaper reports at the time of her death, and Kassin notes that it is actually the mug shot taken of Genovese from when she had been arrested for a minor gambling offence. In a strange coincidence, the lawyer who represented Genovese for that offence, Sidney Sparrow, went on to be Winston Moseley’s assigned counsel.