“I was 16 when my sister, Kitty, was murdered in New York City, ” says William Genovese in the gripping, feature-length documentary The Witness. “In an instant she was gone. No one understood me like Kitty.”
Following its well-received theatrical release in 2016, The Witness makes its broadcast debut on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, Monday, January 23, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.
Twenty-eight-year old Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed during a rape attempt across the street from her apartment building in Kew Gardens, Queens, in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964. Without the aid or intervention of neighbors, police or passersby, she managed to stumble to the vestibule of her apartment building where her attacker dealt his final blows.
The crime was shocking and captured the media’s attention, generating glaring headlines beyond NYC newsrooms. But Kitty’s own back story and the details of her brutal murder soon took a back seat to the crime’s shocking moral implications. Did 38 Kew Gardens’ neighbors actually “witness” her attack and do nothing as initially reported in The New York Times? The Times’ breaking crime coverage became the nut for other news outlets around the city and world, fueling political rhetoric, the story lines of socially relevant TV programming and the syllabuses for criminal justice confabs and college sociology courses for more than half a century.
In death, Kitty Genovese would forever be remembered as the “poster child for urban apathy.” But on the 40th anniversary of her murder in 2004, this landmark crime story took another turn. The New York Times published an article by journalist Jim Rasenberger examining the accuracy of his original coverage. Meanwhile, filmmaker James Solomon’s research for a dramatic screenplay about the murder led to his meeting with Kitty’s brother William “Bill” Genovese, who had yet to resolve the pain of his sister’s death.
“I was originally attracted to the story as a morality play and wanted to explore what happened in those apartments,” recalls producer/director James Solomon. “I had no reason to doubt the popular narrative of the 38 witnesses who watched.” Solomon finally determined that a documentary, not a fictionalized drama, “would bring us closer to the truth.”
Solomon’s film, The Witness, follows Bill Genovese on his 11-year odyssey to set the record straight by separating fact from fiction and upending the veracity of the word “witness” as it was applied to his sister’s case. Spurred by inconclusive and redacted police reports and helpful research originally collected for an “ABC 20/20” news story about the crime, Bill revisits the crime scene, re-stages Kitty’s screams for help, connects with surviving “witnesses,” reporters and criminal justice professionals and even attempts to arrange a meeting with his sister’s incarcerated murderer (Winston Moseley died in prison in April 2016) and one of Moseley’s sons.
A Vietnam veteran and double amputee, Bill is a gentle if obsessed protagonist. His relentless mission ultimately affords him and his siblings a measure of comfort and closure when several of Kitty’s former friends and neighbors debunk the original police report and news coverage. He also creates a vivid portrait of his sister, as a loving sibling, free-spirited friend and gutsy maverick, who turns out to have been a surprising trailblazer for her time.
Like any well-orchestrated crime drama, The Witness grabs you by the throat and never lets you go. It should serve as a marvelous discussion catalyst in counseling settings with individuals who have lost family and friends to senseless crimes. It will also be a fitting choice for schools, libraries and universities in criminal justice, ethics and journalism classes dealing with the consequences and collateral damage of inaccurate and sensational media coverage.
“At a time when there is a renewed focus on responsibility of the press and public institutions to ask tough questions to distinguish myth from truth, The Witness … reminds us how ambiguous events get reshaped into narratives to fit our collective and individual needs in the absence of the whole truth,” says Lois Vossen, Independent Lens executive producer.
I encourage you not to miss the U.S. broadcast premiere of The Witness on Independent Lens on PBS tonight, Monday, January 23, 2017, 10:00-11:30 p.m. ET. Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and its availability on Video On Demand and, beginning January 24, 2017, via online streaming @ http://www.pbs.org/independentlens –Judith Trojan