The Witness

Last year I discovered something extraordinary, a family secret that blew me away.

I started to watch James Solomon’s fascinating documentary called The Witness about the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder case and the so-called “38 residents of Kew Gardens in Queens, NY who were pilloried in the press for their apparent indifference” to her screams as she was stabbed to death for thirty minutes in the street. In the decades following, Genovese was held up as a tragic victim of “bystander apathy” but the documentary reveals Kitty to be “so much more than her last 30 minutes” and the “38” to be so much more than mere scapegoats.

Particularly fascinating was The New York Times’ original report on those “38 Bad Samaritans” spearheaded by editor A.M. Rosenthal (none other than my Uncle!). Who knew that Rosenthal reported, covered and wrote about the most notorious true crime story of his generation and purposefully misreported the facts because his version made a more compelling story?

That “false story” nearly destroyed Kitty’s brother (who narrated the documentary) as he spent most of his adult life searching for the truth. What he found was surprising; as the brother confronted his sister’s killer in prison, he actually entertained the notion of forgiveness and in the truth suggested that “mercy, rather than danger, might be lying in wait for all of us.

It is a sobering thought and a reminder to those of us who write true crime, that truth telling is a huge responsibility and has repercussions. In my uncle’s version humanity was cruel and cowardly by nature, but the brother’s documentary reveals the truth:

“Who we really are, and how we might react [when faced with criminal conduct] is a mystery.”

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