Angel of Death

This week in Criminal Law we read the Bernard Goetz case. This was a pretty big deal in the late 80s, but I'll summarize it for those who aren't familiar with it.

Bernard Goetz was a white man living in New York City. One day he boarded a subway train and sat down toward the back of the car. A group of four young African-Americans approached him and in some manner requested that he give them money (the nature of the request is somewhat up for debate; Goetz maintains that they were mugging him, while they claim to have simply been panhandling). Goetz responded by standing up, pulling a handgun out of a shoulder harness, and shooting at each of the four men in turn. He hit three of them, while the fourth ran away. Goetz tried to pursue him, but he escaped into the crowd. Goetz then returned and shot the first youth again. The train stopped between stations, and Goetz got out and escaped on the tracks. He turned himself in several days later in New Hampshire. The fourth youth escaped without injury. The second and third youths suffered minor injuries, while the first youth, the one Goetz had shot twice, had his spinal cord severed and was paralyzed. Goetz was charged with four counts of assault with a deadly weapon and four counts of attempted murder.

I've tried to keep the factual summary fairly neutral. The interesting thing about reading this case is that after he turned himself in, Goetz gave a statement to the police which not only makes himself look much, much worse than the neutral statement of facts, but also embelishes facts to make himself look more guilty. I quote from the statement of the case:

"Goetz admitted that he had been illegally carrying a handgun in New York City for three years. He stated that he had first purchased a gun in 1981 after he had been injured in a mugging. Goetz also revealed that twice between 1981 and 1984 he had successfully warded off assailants simply by displaying the pistol."
"According to Goetz's statement, the first contact he had with the four youths came when Canty, sitting or lying on the bench across from him, asked 'how are you,' to which he replied 'fine'. Shortly thereafter, Canty, followed by one of the other youths, walked over to the defendant and stood to his left, while the other two youths remained to his right, in the corner of the subway car. Canty then said 'give me five dollars'. Goetz stated that he knew from the smile on Canty's face that they wanted to 'play with me'. Although he was certain that none of the youths had a gun, he had a fear, based on prior experiences, of being 'maimed'."
"Goetz then established 'a pattern of fire,' deciding specifically to fire from left to right. His stated intention at that point was to 'murder [the four youths], to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible'. When Canty again requested money, Goetz stood up, drew his weapon, and began firing, aiming for the center of the body of each of the four. Goetz recalled that the first two he shot 'tried to run through the crowd [but] they had nowhere to run'. Goetz then turned to his right to 'go after the other two'. One of these two 'tried to run through the wall of the train, but * * * he had nowhere to go'. The other youth (Cabey) 'tried pretending that he wasn't with [the others]' by standing still, holding on to one of the subway hand straps, and not looking at Goetz. Goetz nonetheless fired his fourth shot at him. He then ran back to the first two youths to make sure they had been 'taken care of'. Seeing that they had both been shot, he spun back to check on the latter two. Goetz noticed that the youth who had been standing still was now sitting on a bench and seemed unhurt. As Goetz told the police, 'I said '[you] seem to be all right, here's another'', and he then fired the shot which severed Cabey's spinal cord. Goetz added that 'if I was a little more under self-control * * * I would have put the barrel against his forehead and fired.' He also admitted that 'if I had had more [bullets], I would have shot them again, and again, and again.'"

Goetz's appeal occurred after indictment, before trial. He sought a ruling on jury instructions for self-defense. New York's self-defence statute requires that the force used in self-defense be "reasonable." Goetz argued that this should be a subjective rather than an objective standard. In other words, the question the Jury should be asked shouldn't be, "Would a reasonable person have reacted the way Goetz did in this situation?" but rather, "Was Goetz reacting in a way that he considered reasonable?"

The Court of Appeals shut Goetz down; the reasonableness standard can take into account the experiences of the party claiming self-defense, but it can't be purely subjective. Everyone believes they're behaving reasonably when they commit a crime, and if they don't they plead insanity. Allowing a subjective standard would reduce the reasonableness requirement to a form of words. The reasonableness requirement is there to prevent situations where someone reacts to being punched in the nose by shooting the assailant in the face. It's specifically designed to prevent vigilante justice of the kind performed by Mr. Goetz.

Except it didn't prevent vigilante justice of the kind performed by Mr. Goetz; the case went to trial and the jury acquitted on all counts but one: possession of an unregistered firearm. Goetz paid a fine and served a month in jail, then was released.

So what's Goetzy up to now? Last fall he ran an unsuccessful campaign for New York City Public Advocate. His campaign page/personal web site is still up. Goetz, in case you haven't noticed, is kinda crazy. In addition to running quixotic campaigns for public office, Goetz is apparently both an avid hunter and a vegan, and runs a website extolling both lifestyles (complete with goofy photoshopped pictures of squirrels holding rifles).

You could sort of tell from his statement to police, though, that he's always been a bit unhinged; the testimony from witnesses on the scene makes it apparent that he wasn't nearly the Charles Bronson figure he made himself out to be in his statement. My guess is that he built the incident up in his mind after the fact and fabricated an elaborate Death Wish fantasy, complete with action movie one-liners and a cool detachment from violence. Of course, the alternative is that he's genuinely psychopathic and really would have kept firing if he'd had more bullets.

In either case, if I were to run into him on the subway, I wouldn't ask him for five dollars.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on April 8, 2006 1:39 PM.

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