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Bernhard Goetz Trial: 1987

The Defense Attacks, Effective Demonstration

Defendant: Bernhard Hugo Goetz
Crimes Charged: Attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and criminal possession of a gun
Chief Defense Lawyers: Mark Baker and Barry Slotnick
Chief Prosecutor: Gregory Waples
Judge: Stephen G. Crane
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: March 23-June 16, 1987
Verdict: Guilty of criminal possession of a gun; not guilty of all other charges
Sentence: 1 year imprisonment, $5,075 fine, 4 years probation

SIGNIFICANCE: How far should an American citizen be allowed to go in the defense of his life and liberty? That was the question facing a jury in this, one of the most highly charged trials New York City had ever seen.

Following a 1981 beating that left him with a permanently damaged knee, Bernhard Goetz, a 36-year-old electrical engineer, took to carrying a gun everywhere he went. On December 22, 1984, while riding a New York City subway train, he was approached by four black youths, one of whom demanded $5. Goetz's response was to yank a revolver from a special quick-draw holster and begin spraying bullets. As two of the youths fled, Goetz shot them in the back. One, Darrell Cabey, fell. Goetz approached him and said, "You seem to be all right; here's another," firing a second open-nosed bullet that severed Cabey's spinal cord. Then Goetz calmly left the scene and disappeared.

Nine days later Goetz gave himself up at a police station in Concord, New Hampshire. Following several lengthy confessions he was charged with 13 various offenses, from attempted murder to criminal possession of a gun.

Bringing the case to court took time—more than two years. Selecting a jury for such an obviously volatile trial proved almost as laborious, as neither side wanted to concede any advantage in this most critical phase of the judicial process. Eventually, after one month, a jury of 10 whites and two blacks was impaneled, and on April 27, 1987, they heard Assistant District Attorney Gregory Waples make the opening presentation. He outlined the salient facts, then said: "These terribly destructive shots … were fired not by a typical New Yorker, not by a reasonable person such as yourselves, responding to provocation in an appropriate and limited manner, but by an emotionally troubled individual. " Goetz was, said Waples, "a man with a passionate but very twisted and self-righteous sense of right and wrong … an emotional powder keg, one spark away from explosion." To drive home this point Waples highlighted Goetz's refusal to wear gloves, even on the coldest winter day, so that he might remain "fast on the draw" should trouble arise. Such an obsession, the prosecutor reasoned, was far more likely to lead Goetz into conflict rather than avoid it.

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