On Tuesday, April 23, 1996, a Bronx jury of four blacks and two Hispanics deliberated four and one-half hours before ruling unanimously that the white subway gunman, Bernard Goetz, had “acted recklessly and without justification” in shooting Darrell Cabey twelve years earlier. Cabey, now 30 years old and paralyzed by Goetz’ final bullet, was awarded $18 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in primitive damages. Cabey’s lawyer, Ronald Kuby, said the jury’s decision “sends a message to all racists with guns who think young black lives are worth nothing—they’re worth a lot.” (
New Haven Register
, April 24, 1996, page 1)
Race and violence. Two of the nation’s obsessions. Justice is served, and the book is closed on the infamous “subway vigilante” once and for all. But was Goetz a racist, or just a very frightened man trying to defend himself from being mugged on a New York subway on the afternoon of December 22, 1984? Goetz criminal trial ended in June of 1987 and a jury of 12 had “reasonable doubt” that Goetz was guilty of either reckless endangerment or attempted murder. They interpreted Goetz’s actions as justified self-defense. How could these two juries be so far apart? Was there new evidence? Did the rules change? Are there circumstances other than “evidence” that affect a jury’s deliberations and ultimately a just verdict? These are just a few of the questions students will attempt to answer as they are taken on a legal journey that should unravel some of the mysteries of the United States legal system.
Because of certain similarities that exist in trial procedures, and the issue of race in a high-profile criminal trial, this unit will compare the Goetz criminal case to the Simpson case. Students will study each case from grand jury to lawyer selection to jury selection; from opening statements to testimony to cross-examination to closing statements to verdict and beyond. In the process, students will be asked to role-play different parts in the two cases, forcing them to try to experience how it feels to be first a defense witness, for example, then a prosecution witness. In one case, a student might be preparing a legal brief for the defense of an accused murderer, in the next, for the state attorney’s office. The wealth of information available on both these cases makes them ideal for student research. An addition to research skills, this unit will stress writing, listening and verbal skills as well. Hopefully, through case studies such as these, students will develop a more balanced view of the law and reasons why the criminal justice system operates the way it does. This unit, I believe, will be a useful classroom resource for high school and middle school social studies teachers who want to challenge their students to become more involved in issues surrounding the criminal justice system and issues of minority rights.