Bernhard Goetz

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Bernhard Hugo Goetz or Bernard "Bernie" Goetz (born 1947 in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York) was dubbed the "Subway Vigilante" by the New York press. He became a symbol of New Yorkers' frustrations with a high crime rate when Goetz, who is white, shot four young black men who were intent on robbing him on the Seventh Avenue 2 express subway train in Manhattan in 1984.

Goetz earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from New York University. At the time of the shooting incident, he was self-employed, running an electronics repair business out of his Greenwich Village apartment.

As of 2005, Goetz is again living in New York City and has run for both mayor (in 2001) and public advocate (2005). Goetz has stated that while he did not expect to be elected, he did hope to bring attention to issues in the public interest. He is also an advocate for vegetarianism and the service of vegetarian lunches in the New York City public school system. He occasionally gives media interviews about the 1984 subway incident that suddenly brought his private life into the public eye. He sells and services electronic test equipment via his company "Vigilante Electronics".


[edit] The incident

In the early afternoon of December 22, 1984, four young men — Barry Allen, 19; Troy Canty, 19; James Ramseur, 18; and Darrell Cabey, 19 — boarded a downtown No. 2 express train on a mission to steal money from video arcade machines in Manhattan.

Goetz entered the same subway car at the 14th Street station and sat down near the four young men. According to Goetz's statement to police, approximately ten seconds later Troy Canty asked him, "How are you?" Goetz responded that he was "fine". According to Goetz, the four men gave signals to each other, and shortly thereafter Canty and Barry Allen rose from their seats and went over to the left of Goetz, blocking Goetz off from the other passengers in the car. Canty then said to Goetz, "Give me five dollars." According to the young men's testimony, Canty was panhandling, although eyewitness testimony given at Goetz's criminal trial generally agreed that the four men were aggressive and threatening. Goetz told police that he thought from the smile on Canty's face that they wanted to "play with me," and he decided on a "pattern of fire" that he would use to shoot them. Goetz, pretending not to hear them, asked Canty, "What did you say?" Canty calmly repeated, "Give me five dollars." Goetz admitted to police that he "snapped" and that his intention at that point was to "murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible." At the criminal trial, Goetz's defense attorneys, Barry Slotnick and Mark Baker, claimed that this and other extreme statements by Goetz were the product of an overactive imagination.

After the second demand or request for money, Goetz rose from his seat, and from beneath his blue windbreaker he fast-drew his .38 caliber five-shot Smith & Wesson revolver and fired five shots with speed shooting. (Speed shooting is a very fast technique, primarily effective at close range, where the shooter initiates trigger pull prior to the sights being aligned on the target.) In media interviews, Goetz, who had prior firearms and target shooting experience, described how he discharged all five rounds extraordinarily quickly within 1.5 to 1.6 seconds. The first hit Canty in the center of the chest; the second shot struck Allen in his back and came out his arm; the third shot hit the subway wall just in front of Cabey; the fourth shot hit Cabey in the left side, severing his spinal cord and rendering him paraplegic; the fifth shot went through Ramseur's arm and lodged itself in his left side. Goetz then immediately looked at the first two men to make sure they were "taken care of."

Goetz then saw Cabey moving on the bench and confessed to approaching Cabey and saying, "You don't look too bad; here's another," and then attempted to shoot Cabey again in the stomach, with an empty gun. Cabey, who was briefly standing prior to the shooting, was sitting on the subway bench during all attempted shots. In his subsequent police statement, Goetz explained, "if I had had more [bullets], I would have shot them again, and again, and again." All four men survived, though Cabey was permanently paralyzed and suffered brain damage as a result of the bullet that severed his spine.

Goetz claimed that at the moment of the incident he experienced severe distortion of his visual depth of field, one of many known significant physiological effects of epinephrine (adrenaline), a fight-or-flight hormone released by the adrenal medulla. He also apparently suffered a combination of loss of hearing and audio exclusion, in part from the adrenaline rush and also from the tremendous decibel level of the gun discharge reverberating inside the confined space of the subway car with its carbon steel walls and fiberglass benches. In media interviews, Goetz has described in haunting, vivid detail, the incredible high-pitched ringing in his ears as a part of his overall state of mind at the moment of the incident. Goetz claimed he suffered this hearing loss and audio exclusion after the first shot and up to the point he noticed two women who he thought were unintentionally hit by his bullets. These women in fact fainted outright in response to the trauma of the incident.

After the shooting, the only other passengers of the original 15 to 20 that remained in the subway car were two nearby women who had fainted. After talking to the two women to determine if they were injured - they were not - Goetz was approached by the conductor who had been in the next car. Goetz refused to hand over his gun to the conductor, stating "They tried to rob me" and left the train which had halted because of the incident, a common practice on the New York City subway system during certain emergency situations. Due to the tremendous decibel volume of the shots, there were initial witness reports after the incident that suggested the gun involved was a .44 Magnum or other large caliber handgun, or possibly a 9mm automatic because of the rapid rate of fire. Goetz later described in a 2005 media interview on the Opie and Anthony radio show that the volume was in part due to the fact that the shots he fired that afternoon "cleaned the barrel" of the small-frame .38 revolver he used. In other words, those shots were purportedly the first time he had ever fired that particular gun.

Goetz fled the subway system at the Chambers Street Station. He then rented a car and drove to Bennington, Vermont and buried the gun and the blue windbreaker he wore at the time of the shooting. He walked into a Concord, New Hampshire police station to turn himself in on December 31, 1984. While he was away, police had already tried to contact him at his Greenwich Village apartment for an interview because he fit the description of the shooter.

After the incident, rumors spread that Goetz was threatened with sharpened screwdrivers. This rumor was published as fact by some newspapers; however, neither Goetz nor the young men made any such claim. In fact, during his subsequent statement to the police Goetz expressed a belief that none of the young men was armed. Paramedics and police did find a total of four unsharpened screwdrivers on two of the men, which they explained were to be used to break into change boxes. Goetz's confession to shooting Cabey twice, first in the left side and later in the stomach, and Goetz's use of the phrase "You don't look too bad; here's another" was made public by the DA prior to the second grand jury. This was reported as fact in the media for 18 months up to the time of the criminal trial, when Cabey's medical records were released indicating he was shot once in the left side.

[edit] Background

This incident occurred during the 1980s, a time of unprecedented crime rates in New York City. In the mid-eighties, New York had a reported crime rate that was over 70% higher than the rest of the U.S. In 1984, NYC police reported a rate of 2 homicides, 18 total violent crimes, and 65 property thefts per 10,000 people per year. On average, 38 crimes were reported on New York City subways each day.

After being mugged once in the mid 1970s while with friends returning to a Harlem subway station, Goetz was mugged again in 1981 by three men and sustained injuries from the assault. Though he had prior target shooting experience earlier in his life, it was this second violent event that prompted Goetz to begin carrying a gun. Even though his permit application to carry a handgun was denied, Goetz bought a five-shot, aluminum-frame Smith and Wesson revolver out of fear for his safety. Goetz had brandished the pistol on two occasions prior to the attack on the subway in order to frighten away would-be robbers. It was this firearm that Goetz used to shoot the four men who confronted him on the subway in 1984.

At the time of the incident, Goetz had no criminal record while all four of the men had a total of fourteen outstanding criminal bench warrants, although only Cabey had been charged with a felony, armed robbery. When the incident occurred, all of the men were either 18 or 19, and had reached the legal age of majority. Thus it makes more sense to refer to them as "young men", rather than "youths" or "kids", terms often used by the media regarding this incident and also used by their civil trial lawyers, among them Ron Kuby and William Kunstler. Although not an exact definition, in a legal context the term youth typically implies that the person is under the age of 18 and may or may not be tried as an adult.

[edit] Public reaction

The "subway vigilante", as Goetz was labeled by the New York tabloids, was front page news for months, partly due to the repressed passions it unleashed in New York and other urban areas. Some viewed the soft-spoken Goetz as a hero for standing up to his attackers and defending himself in an environment where the police were increasingly viewed as ineffective in combating crime. This camp felt that, in his cornered and threatened circumstance, Goetz's best defense was to use the element of surprise, his only strategic advantage over four younger, and more physically powerful, men, to shoot all four men quickly and decisively in order to resist the mugging and potential bodily injury.

The Guardian Angels collected donations from N.Y.C. subway riders for a legal defense fund for Goetz. The Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.), a civil rights organization, also offered to raise money for his legal defense. Published stories about the prior criminal convictions of the four men prevented them from gaining sympathy from many people.

Some wondered whether the trial result would have been different if the participants' races were reversed. In contrast, Time Magazine correspondent Otto Friedrich pointed out the case of Austin Weeks, a 29 year old African American man who shot a white teenager, yet a New York City grand jury refused to indict Weeks for that shooting.

Others viewed Goetz's action as a violent and criminal overreaction to the events. Some suggested that, at the moment of the incident, Goetz should have been thinking of Cabey's mother.

Those in the first camp tended to believe Goetz's version of the incident, that he was aggressively accosted and cornered by the four men demanding money. Those in the second camp tended to believe the version of the incident as told by the four men, that they were merely panhandling with neither intimidation nor threats of violence. This latter view of events was later substantially discredited when one of the four men admitted that they planned to rob Goetz.

In the middle of these two polarized views were people who believed that Goetz was indeed being threatened with violence, but seriously questioned whether the drastic nature of his actions could qualify as self-defense. People in this camp thought that Goetz overreacted when he opened fire without warning on not only one, but all four of the men who confronted him.

[edit] Criminal trial

The Goetz trial was a significant news event. Goetz confessed to the shooting but argued that his actions fell within the New York self-defense statute. Under Section 35.15, "A person may not use deadly physical force upon another person...unless...He reasonably believes that such other person is committing or attempting to commit [one of certain enumerated predicate offenses, including robbery]." The New York Court of Appeals upheld Goetz's indictment for attempted murder and assault. Goetz was eventually acquitted of those charges, but he did serve eight months on a one-year sentence for illegal weapons possession.

The New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York, reversed the dismissal of a grand jury indictment of Goetz on charges of attempted murder, assault and criminal possession of a weapon. The court held that Goetz's actual belief that he was in imminent danger was not dispositive because the standard is not purely subjective. Rather, the self-defense justification of deadly force requires an objectively reasonable belief that an imminent threat exists. That is, considering all the circumstances, a "reasonable person" in Goetz's place would have believed he or she was in danger.

Goetz was convicted of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Third Degree and initially sentenced to six months in jail, one year psychiatric treatment, five years' probation, 200 hours community service, and a fine of $5,000. He appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the conviction and ordered a resentencing for a period of one year in jail without probation. The order of the appellate court was affirmed because the trial court did not err in instructing the jury that, if it found the people had proved each of the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt, it "must" find defendant guilty. This was not a directed verdict.

[edit] Civil trial

Darrell Cabey, and his lawyer Ron Kuby filed a civil suit against Goetz in 1985. In 1996, a jury found that Goetz acted recklessly and deliberately inflicted emotional distress on Cabey. The jury awarded Cabey $43 million. Goetz subsequently filed bankruptcy.

At the civil trial, newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin testified that Cabey denied his involvement in an attempted robbery, but said that Canty, Allen, and Ramseur intended to rob Goetz because "he looked like easy bait."

[edit] Legacy

James Ramseur and Barry Allen have committed serious crimes since the original incident. Soon after being released from the hospital for the treatment of his gunshot wound, James Ramseur committed another crime with an associate: he was later convicted of raping, sodomizing, beating and robbing a pregnant nineteen year old woman on a building rooftop in the Bronx, and in 1986 was sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison. Barry Allen committed two muggings after the shooting.

After reaching an all time peak in 1990, crime in New York City dropped dramatically throughout the rest of the 1990s. As of 2006, New York had statistically become one of the safest large cities in the U.S., with its crime rate being ranked 194th of the 210 American cities with populations over 100,000. The New York City crime rates in the first half of the 2000's decade were comparable to those of New York in the early 1960s. Goetz and others have interpreted the significance of his actions in the subway incident as a contributing factor precipitating the groundswell movement against crime in subsequent years. While that claim is impossible to verify, Goetz achieved celebrity as a popular cultural symbol of the reaction to urban crime and disorder.

Twenty years after the incident, Goetz appeared on Larry King Live. He believes that his actions helped precipitate the drop in crime experienced in New York City in the early 1990s. He is now an outspoken vegetarian and advocate of vegetarian alternatives in school lunches. In 2005, hoping to bring attention to significant issues in the public interest, he unsuccessfully ran for New York Public Advocate, earning about 17,000 votes.

In the 2002 film Every Move You Make, Goetz plays a criminologist who teaches a female stalking victim how to use a concealed weapon.[1]

In the first season of the television program Law & Order, the episode "Subterranean Homeboy Blues" was based on the Goetz case; however they switched the gender of the character who was the vigilante. Cynthia Nixon played the character based on Goetz.

In the music world, "Bernie Goetz" is named in "We Didn't Start the Fire," a hit single by Billy Joel released on the 1989 album Storm Front. (The lyrics are a mix of history and social commentary.) He is also mentioned in "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" by the Beastie Boys, "Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?" by LL Cool J, "NYC Street Corner Battle" by Kool Keith, "Da Graveyard" by Big L, "Hold On" by Lou Reed, "Clan in Da Front" by Wu Tang Clan, "The Executioner (Bernie Goetz A Gun)" by the British group Pallas, "Stick to Your Guns" by the African-American, NYC based punk band The Templars, "Vigilante" by the Canadian band Barstool Prophets and "Shoot His Load" by New York punk band Agnostic Front.

The themes of the incident play a large part in the mid-80s Spider-Man story The Death of Jean DeWolff, which also concludes with a very similar incident.

The New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell described the incident in chapter four of his best-selling first book, The Tipping Point (2000), within a discussion about the sharp drop in crime in New York City since the 1980s. The chapter is entitled "The Power of Context."

Alton Brown, a fine-dining and television chef, lists Bernard Goetz as the personal hero of a thin, angry man with a lead pipe, to humorous effect, in his comparison of hot 300-degree oil and a 500-degree oven in his book I'm Just Here for the Food.

Bill Stephney mentions Goetz as one reason they named their Hip-Hop group Public Enemy. In the original quote he puts him into one line with Howard Beach and Michael Stewart as a sign, that "The Black male is definitely the public enemy." (see Jeff Chang: "Can't stop, won't stop" p247)

[edit] References

  • Subway Gunman: A Juror's Account of the Bernhard Goetz Trial (ISBN 0-945167-08-3).
  • The Tipping Point (ISBN 0-316-34662-4).
  • A Crime of Self-Defense : Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial (ISBN 0-226-25334-1).
  • The trial of Bernhard Goetz (ASIN B0006DAN94).
  • People Vs. Goetz: The Summations and the Charges to the Jury (ISBN 0-89941-657-8).
  • People v. Goetz, 68 N.Y.2d 96 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1986)

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