Bearing Witness

updated 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE CRIME BECAME, IN ITS WAY, an enduring symbol of urban malaise, a testament to what happens when neighborhoods cease to be neighborhoods and good people choose, in the phrase that became a sort of memorial to Catherine "Kitty" Genovese, not to get involved. As police reported later, at least 38 people in middle-class Kew Gardens, in the New York City borough of Queens, heard the screams of Genovese, 28, a bar manager returning from work shortly after 3 a.m. on March 13, 1964. But for half an hour no one called police. When help finally arrived, at 4:05 a.m., Genovese was found dead in a stairwell, her body repeatedly slashed. Almost at once, her name became a code phrase for big-city indifference to victims of crime.

Five days after the murder, police arrested Walter Moseley, a 29-year-old business-machine operator, who confessed to the stabbing within hours. Moseley was eventually sentenced to life in prison and might forever have disappeared from view had he not staged a bold but ultimately doomed jailbreak in 1968. During three days on the lam, he raped a woman near Buffalo and held her family hostage before police again brought him to ground. Now 60, he is attempting another breakout—this time a legal one. On July 24, Moseley, who last spoke to the press in 1977, is scheduled to appear before a federal judge in Brooklyn to demand a retrial. His lawyer at the original trial, Sidney Sparrow, had once represented Genovese when she challenged a minor gambling conviction. Since 1989, Moseley has doggedly but unsuccessfully pursued a claim in state courts that this constituted a conflict of interest.

A courtroom mob cheered Moseley's conviction in 1964, but the Genovese family chose not to attend. "It was too painful for us," Vincent Genovese Jr., 57, Catherine's brother, told PEOPLE, breaking three decades of family silence. Next week, though, her four siblings—Vincent; Bill, 47; Frank, 44; and sister Susan Wakeman, 49—plan to be there. "Moseley probably thinks no one cares after 31 years," says Vincent. "This guy didn't just destroy my sister, he destroyed my family. The gloves are off. We're fighting."

The oldest of five children, Catherine ("Kitty" was a high school nickname used only by friends) stayed behind in New York when her parents, Vincent Sr., owner of the Bay Ridge Coat and Apron Supply Co., and Rachel, a home-maker, moved the family to the suburbs in 1954 after Rachel had witnessed a shooting outside their Brooklyn house. Living alone was a rare arrangement for a 19-year-old, single Italian-American woman, but Catherine was outgoing and independent. "She was ahead of her time, a city person," says Vincent Jr. "She was living her own life."

Then, abruptly, that life was over. The news of Catherine's murder came with a knock on the Genovese family's door at 6 a.m. "We were all half asleep, and all of a sudden a bomb exploded," says Vincent. "We sat around dumbfounded, looking at one another." Rachel had to be sedated by a doctor, and Vincent Sr. was too upset to identify the body. "After the funeral we started hearing the gruesome details, about all the people who didn't do anything," Vincent says. "It was so overwhelming, we couldn't handle it. We started retreating."

Letting go of Catherine was no easy matter, especially for Rachel. Over the years, the children tried to shelter her from hundreds of stories that appeared in the press. But when she died in 1993 at 78, they found a hoard of newspaper clippings tucked in her desk. Some dealt with the so-called Bad Samaritan syndrome—people not helping others in trouble. Remarkably, though, the Genovese family has never blamed those who kept silent. "They were not the cause of our nightmares," says Vincent. "There's only one person responsible for what happened to Catherine."

PATRICK ROGERS
MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City

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