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Kitty Genovese, the ‘bystander effect’, and false confessions 

Monday, July 24, 2017
posted by Rita Handrich

Think back to your Psychology 101 class in college or an upper level Social Psychology undergraduate course and you will probably remember the famous case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered in a brutal attack outside her Queens, NY apartment in 1964. According to psychology textbooks, at least 38 onlookers witnessed the attack (mostly through hearing her screams) and yet no one came to her aid or called the police.

Psychologists labeled this “seeing but not helping” phenomenon as “the bystander effect”. Essentially, they say, the presence of others observing someone who needs help, diminishes the likelihood that any individual person will help (since we presume others will come to the person’s aid).

But, as it turns out, the Kitty Genovese story we know is not accurate. Saul Kassin, perhaps the most famous of the false confessions researchers, reviewed the historical records on this case and discovered the facts have been misreported for decades. According to Kassin (who is one of the responders on a paper we wrote for The Jury Expert when working a false confessions case), bystanders did respond, several came to her aid, and others called the police.

There were also a number of people who gave false confessions for her murder.

Police arrested a 29-year-old Black man named Winston Moseley for burglary and said he gave a “full and detailed confession” to Genovese’s rape and murder as well as several additional women. However, the police already had a confession for one of the other women Moseley confessed to killing.

The second man, a White 18-year-old male named Alvin Mitchell had been “interrogated by the police seven times over 50 hours” and then signed a confession. He swiftly recanted and said he was threatened and physically abused while in police custody. Unfortunately, he was ultimately convicted and served 12 years and 8 months before being released. When asked why he’d falsely confessed, Mitchell told Kassin he would have “confessed to killing the president because them people had me scared to death”.

It is astonishing that the urban mythology surrounding Kitty Genovese’s murder has been so widely accepted. As psychologists, we were presented with false facts of the Kitty Genovese murder and schooled in the “bystander effect” theory which arose from the lack of help she allegedly received. This is a stunning reversal. And, for us, the relationship of false confessions to the Kitty Genovese case is a second interesting twist. The summary of the writeup we’ve linked to in this post has a lot of information, but the article itself is filled with facts you have not likely heard before.

For example, did you know Genovese had a same-sex partner, that it is questionable whether there were really 38 witnesses—let alone 38 witnesses who took no action whatsoever, that the police helped shape the story told in newspapers, or that there are a lot of parallels with the Genovese case to the facts (25 years later) surrounding the false confessions in the Central Park Jogger case?

If you find this information and analysis is as important to you as it is to us,  this article is well worth the effort to access and read it. The story of Kassin’s meeting with Alvin Mitchell (who served such a long time in jail due to his false confession) alone is riveting.

Kassin, S. 2017. The Killing of Kitty Genovese: What Else Does This Case Tell Us? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3).

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