Peter N. Herndon
Racism was an obvious theme, but very much played down in the criminal trial of Bernard Goetz. Goetz, an electronics expert, had been previously attacked by a group of black youths, and seriously injured in a New York subway station in 1981. The youths were charged with criminal mischief rather than attempted robbery and never brought to trial. This left Goetz bitter and disillusioned with the police and shortly thereafter began carrying a gun of his own, for which he was denied a permit, but carried it anyway for self-protection. Goetz’ fear of being beaten up again apparently haunted Goetz. On one other occasion, he went for an evening walk in Central Park near Harlem and had to pull his gun to chase away attempted muggers. Goetz felt he had every right to live where he wanted to, to walk where he wanted, to sit on a subway car where he wanted, even if it meant putting himself into potential danger. He was determined to exercise his basic freedom as a free citizen of the United States.
Three years later, in December, 1984, in a subway car, he was accosted by another group (his attorney would refer to them as a “gang”) of young black men, who demanded Goetz give them some money. (They would claim they only “asked” him for a few dollars.) After Goetz asked one of the youths to repeat his demand, Goetz drew his gun and fired, wounding each of them. He then went over to a bleeding Darrell Cabey and said, “You seem to be doing all right; here’s another,” and shot him again. After comforting two women in the car who were visibly shaken by the experience, he mysteriously disappeared into the subway tunnel, reappearing in Concord, New Hampshire a week later, where he made a full confession. A week later the “subway vigilante” was released on $50,000 bail, so to stand trial for assault, attempted murder and reckless endangerment.
One obvious question for students in this case is, Why does a man who breaks the law by carrying an unregistered handgun and disappears from the scene of a shooting become a hero in the eyes of many citizens of New York City? If a white police officer had shot four black youths demanding money from a subway rider, there certainly would have been cries of racism and police brutality. Was this mysterious white stranger an “avenger” for those who feared being attacked themselves? Consider also the news reports of the four teen-age victims, all with criminal records and the effect it had on the general public. Darrell Cabey had a previous arrest for armed robbery. Both James Ramseur and Troy Canty had served time for petty thievery
Barry Allen was found guilty of disorderly conduct on two occasions. Three screwdrivers (rumored to be sharpened), the tools of petty thieves, were found in the boys’ pockets. The youths’ behavior on the subway was described as “loud and boisterous,” causing the other passengers to move to the other end of the car. People wanted to know, who were the three victims here? Were these boys really young thugs and thieves who, as one witness would later testify, “had it coming?”
Another question for students to ponder is this: If a black man were accused of shooting four white youths would there be any question of a grand jury indicting the man for attempted murder? In the Goetz case, the first grand jury listened to Goetz self-defense plea and his taped statements, but heard none of the victims testify against Goetz. This group of citizens indicted him only for three counts of illegal gun possession, a misdemeanor. No attempted murder. No assault. No reckless endangerment. No wonder there was pressure on the local prosecutors to do better.
By the time the second grand jury met, the district attorney granted immunity to two of the wounded victims who testified that indeed Goetz picked the fight, not the victims. They also heard about the soon-to-be famous “fifth shot” from Goetz’ gun and his remark, “You seem to be all right; here’s another,” to Darrell Cabey. This time the citizens indicted Goetz on charges of violence, including assault, attempted murder and reckless endangerment, for a total of thirteen counts of breaking the law.
As the trial in the classroom opens, student; should try understand the complexity of Bernie Goetz. Showing his videotaped statement to the police from the video, “The Trial of Bernard Goetz” should accomplish this. In the videotaped “confession” he compares himself to a cornered rat:
“you start poking it with . . . red hot needles and . . . you wind up doing it again . . . and if the rat turns viciously on you and just becomes a vicious killer, which is really what I was, then don’t go passing statements of morality. . . .”
Does anyone have the moral or legal right to take action such as he did? If not, the jury must find Goetz guilty. If so, they must find him not guilty. Either way, a moral judgment must be made. That was the jury’s job. And the students job as well. In Goetz’ own words, he insists that we judge him for his actions.
“You decide. I became a vicious animal and if you think that is so terrible, I just wish anyone could have been there in my place. Anyone who is going to judge me, fine, I was vicious. My intent was to kill ‘em, and, and you decide what’s right and wrong.” (Quoted in Fletcher, page 17)
Very clearly, the Goetz case comes down to understanding what legal self-defense is. Goetz’ understanding was something called the “individualist theory” of self-defense:
“No one can ever take away your inalienable right to protect your property or your life or your family. No one can walk up to me and say, ‘give me that watch,’ ‘give me your ring,’ ‘give me five dollars.’ And if they do, heaven help them if I’m armed, because I know what the law allows.” (Quoted in Fletcher, page 33)
On the other hand, the “social theory” of self-defense demands that the person being attacked consider the attacker as a human being, not just as a force intending on a person’s safety. Under these guidelines, muggers and burglars have legal rights too (see “People v. Ceballos”), and the rights of victims are restricted in responding to those who would take their property. But what about the risk, even slight risk, that an intruder might want more than to just robe you of your wallet or your watch? What then? In defending oneself and one’s property, there are legitimate emotions to be dealt with, such as anger and fear. Was Goetz acting in self-defense according to legal definitions and theories of self-defense, (see “Appendix 1” below) or was he the aggressor, possibly acting in retaliation for past wrongs done to him by others? And what about the question of race? All of Goetz’ attackers were black. Was this part of his fear and anger?
Didn’t Goetz have alternatives available to him? Was he really under attack? Was his response the only one that could have thwarted the attack? Or were his fears excessive and therefore his actions unreasonable? Goetz’ shooting required the jury to make it moral judgement about Goetz’ actions, whether or not he did what a reasonable person would do under similar circumstances. Could Goetz have ignored Canty’s request for five dollars and thereby avoided a violent confrontation? What would have happened if Goetz had waved his gun at his potential assailants? The jury could only speculate; and this is precisely what makes a case like this an interesting one. Which side, defense or prosecution, can convince the jury that his interpretation of events is the most believable? (See “Appendix 2,” below)