The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
25. The Subway Vigilante

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Bernhard Goetz
Two days before Christmas, 1984, a 37-year-old self-employed electrical engineer named Bernhard Goetz descended into New York City's subway system at the 14th Street Station and boarded the IRT's No. 2 Express.  The thin, bespectacled Goetz found himself in the same car with four black teenagers -- James Ramseur, 19, Darrell Cabey, 19, Troy Canty, 19, and Barry Allen, 18.  When Canty told Goetz to give him five dollars, Goetz stood up, drew a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver from under his blue windbreaker, and began shooting.  All four youths were wounded, two of them critically. Goetz slipped away at the Chambers Street Station, rented a car and drove to Bennington, Vermont, where he disposed of the pistol and the windbreaker in the woods.  A week later, on New Year's Eve, he turned himself in at the Concord, New Hampshire police station.  By then the "Subway Vigilante" had become a national celebrity.
The vast majority of those who wrote to newspapers, called in to radio talk shows, or participated in man-on-the-street interviews were pro-Goetz.  "Thug Buster" t-shirts urging the acquittal of Goetz became a hot item in the Big Apple.  The Guardian Angels collected money from NYC subway riders for a Goetz defense fund.  Support for Goetz crossed racial lines; the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) offered to raise money to defray the Subway Vigilante's legal fees. But the soft-spoken, self-effacing Goetz refused all financial assistance and seemed, at first, to shun the spotlight following his release from Riker's Island.  Charged with attempted murder and possession of a firearm, he paid his own bail.
New York state law permitted a citizen to use deadly force in self defense, but according to the prosecution Goetz had gone into the subway that day with cold-blooded murder on his mind.  Two of the four youths had been shot in the back while trying to flee; one of them, Darrell Cabey, suffered brain damage and was paralyzed from the waist down.  Nonetheless, a grand jury declined on January 25, 1985 to indict Goetz for anything more than the illegal possession of a handgun.  While Goetz had no criminal record, his four victims had nine convictions and ten outstanding bench warrants between them. Cabey awaited trial for armed robbery.  Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau could not initially  bring himself to offer any of the youths immunity for testifying before the grand jury.  To make matters worse for the prosecution, other passengers came forward to speak on Goetz's behalf.
But in March 1985 Morgenthau claimed to be in possession of new evidence and reopened the case.  Acting Supreme Court Justice Stephen Crane approved the DA's application to call a second grand jury.  Even though he faced a reelection bid and was well aware that public sentiment ran three-to-one in favor of Goetz, Morgenthau decided this time to give Ramseur and Canty immunity in exchange for their testimony.  In addition, a subway employee who witnessed the shooting confirmed Morgenthau's suspicion that Goetz had been looking for trouble.  Goetz's lawyers complained of "judicial lynching," but their client seemed oddly indifferent to his fate.
Goetz's celebrity status was due largely to a growing public concern about crime.  Violent crime had risen sharply in the previous two decades, so that a person was five times as likely to be a victim of violent crime in 1985 as in 1960.  Though it declined briefly between 1980 and 1983, the violent crime rate was on the rise again by mid-decade; in 1986 alone it would soar 12 percent.  The criminal justice system was widely perceived as slow and ineffectual.  Many Americans were convinced that it favored the criminal over the victim. There simply weren't enough police officers to go around.  Spending on local police rose 65 percent between 1978 and 1983, while over 1,500 citizen crime watch and neighborhood patrol groups were created.  In 1984, stiff anti-crime legislation limiting the rights of suspects was passed by Congress, enthusiastically backed by liberals as well as conservatives.  As Dr. James Q. Wilson of Harvard so aptly put it, "There are no more liberals on the . . . law and order issue . . . because they've all been mugged."  Despite the widespread "tax revolt" of the late Seventies and early Eighties, taxpayers in 35 states proved willing to foot big bills for prison expansion programs. The same number of states reinstituted the death penalty following a 1976 Supreme Court decision permitting capital punishment.  At least 400 victims advocacy groups sprang up, establishing hotlines and pressuring legislatures to pass strong "victims bills."  Fear of violent crime pervaded society and the American people were sick and tired of being afraid.  In this environment, individuals like Bernhard Goetz who took the law into their own hands were likely to be hailed as heroes.
Born in Queens, Goetz graduated from NYU with a degree in electrical engineering.  Moving to Florida to work with his father, a real estate developer, he was briefly married, then returned to New York City and started his own business out of an apartment, working on electronic equipment.  In January 1981, Goetz was mugged and injured by three youths at a subway station.  Though his application for a permit to carry a pistol was denied, he bought the .38 Smith & Wesson anyway.  He appeared shy and unassuming, but according to prosecutor Gregory L. Waples, the somewhat nerdish Goetz was "an emotional powder keg."  The prosecution relied heavily on Goetz's confession to police, in which he admitted that his intention was "to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer," and that he had coldly and methodically fired a second round into an already wounded Darrell Cabey.
Following a seven-week trial in mid-1987, a jury found Goetz not guilty on 17 counts of attempted murder and assault.  The courtroom audience erupted into applause after the verdict was announced. Red-bereted Guardian Angels helped shield the Subway Vigilante from the crowd gathered outside the courthouse.  Consisting of ten whites and two blacks, the Manhattan jury took four days to deliberate before reaching a decision that NAACP director Benjamin L. Hooks called a "grave miscarriage of justice."  Others complained that if Goetz had been black and his victims white the trial result would have been altogether different.  But, as Time correspondent Otto Friedrich pointed out, a black 39-year-old named Austin Weeks had shot one of two white teenagers who hurled racial insults at him in a Brooklyn subway a few years earlier, and though Weeks had remained a fugitive for six years, a grand jury refused to indict him.
In deciding whether Goetz had acted criminally, the jury based its conclusion on what a "reasonable person" would have done under the circumstances.  In their view Goetz had acted reasonably, especially since he had been mugged before.  The jurors seemed indifferent to the prosecution's contention that Goetz had gone to the subway that day in search of trouble.  And the poor impression left by two of the youths themselves when they took the stand damaged the prosecution's case; one acted the part of a thug so perfectly that he was removed from the courtroom.  It was easy for the jury to believe that Goetz had felt menaced that day by the four teenagers.  Besides, all across the country citizens who believed they could no longer rely on the police or the courts to effectively protect society from the scourge of crime were taking steps to protect themselves, so why should Bernhard Goetz be punished for doing the same?  The Subway Vigilante remained a hero to many; after delivering the verdict, the jurors took turns asking for his autograph.

The Aftermath
Attorneys for Darrell Cabey filed a civil complaint against Bernhard Goetz in 1985, a case that finally came to trial in 1996.  Goetz was sued for $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages by Cabey, who was paralyzed and brain damaged by the shooting.  Cabey's case depended largely on Goetz's own comments during the December 22, 1984 incident; after shooting Cabey once Goetz admitted telling him, "You don't look too bad, here's another," and shot him a second time.  On April 24, 1996 the jury awarded Cabey $43 million, though no one expected he would get anything close to that amount, since Goetz had little money.


The Economist,  20 June 1987

Newsweek, 11 May 1987

Time, 21 January 1985, 25 March 1985, 8 April 1985, 29 June 1987

U.S. News & World Report, 29 June 1987

Subway Vigilante: A Juror's Account of the Bernhard Goetz Trial
Mark Lesly (Latham, NY: British American Publishing, 1988)