Subway Vigilante Bernard Goetz: Self-defense on Trial

People v. Goetz, 501 N.Y.S.2d 326 (App. Div. 1986)

After being injured during a subway mugging in 1981, Bernard Goetz began carrying an unlicensed handgun. The pale, slight electrical engineer boarded a subway car on December 22, 1984. According to Goetz’s statement, four African American men surrounded him, demanding five dollars.

The young men were Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur. Canty and Ramseur would testify they were panhandling and requested the money. Goetz stood, took out his five-shot .38, and fired five times, wounding all of the men. Cabey was hit in the spine, rendering him paralyzed from the chest down. Goetz fled to northern New England, evading police for nine days, before he surrendered. The media dubbed him “The Subway Vigilante.”

A grand jury initially indicted Goetz only on gun charges, but the district attorney opted to pursue charges of attempted murder and reckless endangerment. The second indictment was dismissed, the dismissal overturned. The key questions in the 1987 trial was intimidation versus threat and what constituted grounds for self-defense. The jury acquitted Goetz of attempted murder but convicted him of illegal weapons possession. Goetz served eight months of a one-year sentence. To this day, many civil rights activists cite this as a gross miscarriage of justice.

Cabey hired William Kunstler to represent him in the civil trial. The jury awarded Cabey $43 million, but Goetz filed for bankruptcy and, as of 2000, had not paid a dime.