During the 1980s, crime rates in New York City were peaking after rising since 1966. Between 1966 and 1981, violent crime rates in the city had more than tripled from 325 to 1100 violent crimes per 100,000 people annually. By mid-decade, the city had a reported crime rate over 70% higher than the rest of the United States. In 1984, there were 2 homicides, 18 violent crimes, and 65 property thefts reported per 10,000 people. The subway became a symbol of the city's inability to control crime. In an opinion poll of New York City residents taken the month after the shootings, more than half of those surveyed said crime was the worst thing about living in the city; about a quarter said they or a family member had been a victim of crime in the last year; and two-thirds said they would be willing to pay for private security for their building or block.
Goetz alleged that while transporting electronic equipment in 1981, he was attacked in the Canal Street subway station by three youths in an attempted robbery. They smashed him into a plate-glass door and threw him to the ground, permanently injuring his chest and knee. Goetz assisted an off-duty officer in arresting one of them; the other two attackers escaped. Goetz was angered when the arrested attacker spent less than half the time in the police station spent by Goetz himself, and he was angered further when this attacker was charged only with criminal mischief, for ripping Goetz's jacket. Goetz subsequently applied for a permit to carry a handgun, on the basis of routinely carrying valuable equipment and large sums of cash, but his application was denied for insufficient need. He bought a 5-shot .38-caliber Smith & Wesson Model 38 Airweight revolver during a trip to Florida.
In the early afternoon of Saturday, December 22, 1984, four African American men from the Bronx—Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey (all 19) and James Ramseur (18)—boarded a downtown 2 train (Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line express) carrying screwdrivers, apparently on a mission to steal money from video arcade machines in Manhattan. When the train arrived at the 14th Street station in Manhattan, 15 to 20 other passengers remained with them in R22 subway car 7657, the seventh car of the ten-car train.
At the 14th Street station, Goetz entered the car through the rearmost door, crossed the aisle and took a seat on the long bench across from the door. Canty was across the aisle from him, lying on the long bench just to the right of the door. Allen was seated to Canty's left, on the short seat on the other side of the door. Ramseur and Cabey were seated across from the door and to Goetz's right, on the short seat by the conductor's cab. According to Goetz's statement to the police, approximately ten seconds later Canty asked him, "How are you?" Goetz responded, "Fine." According to Goetz, the four men gave signals to each other, and shortly thereafter Canty and Barry Allen rose from their seats and moved over to the left of Goetz, blocking Goetz off from the other passengers in the car. By Goetz's account, Canty then said, "Give me five dollars." Canty and Ramseur testified at the criminal trial that they were panhandling, and had only requested the money, not demanded it. Cabey did not testify and Allen took the Fifth Amendment.
Sources differ in reporting the sequence of shots fired, and whether Cabey was shot once or twice. Following are four versions from significant or reliable sources describing the sequence of shots:
Prior to the criminal trial, the media reported that Cabey had been shot on the fourth shot and then again on the fifth shot, with Goetz saying, "You don't look too bad, here's another," or, "You seem all right, here's another." This sequence of shots was discredited at the criminal trial when it was revealed that Cabey was shot once in the left side; however, some media still reported this sequence long after the criminal trial.
"Speed is everything," Goetz said in a videotaped statement made after he surrendered nine days later. He told police that while still seated, he planned a "pattern of fire" from left to right. He then stood, stepped clear of Canty, drew his revolver, turned back to Canty, and fired four shots, one at each man, then fired a fifth shot. At the civil trial years later he said, "I was trying to get as many of them as I could." Other sources repeated Goetz's statements to New York City police as to the sequence of shots: Canty was shot first, then Allen, then Ramseur, then Cabey. In the related proceeding People v. Goetz, the New York Court of Appeals summarized the incident:
It appears from the evidence before the Grand Jury that Canty approached Goetz, possibly with Allen beside him, and stated "Give me five dollars." Neither Canty nor any of the other youths displayed a weapon. Goetz responded by standing up, pulling out his handgun, and firing four shots in rapid succession. The first shot hit Canty in the chest; the second struck Allen in the back; the third went through Ramseur's arm and into his left side; the fourth was fired at Cabey, who apparently was then standing in the corner of the car, but missed, deflecting instead off of a wall of the conductor's cab. After Goetz briefly surveyed the train scene around him, he fired another shot at Cabey, who then was sitting on the end bench of the car. The bullet entered the rear of Cabey's side and severed his spinal cord.
According to his statements to police, Goetz checked the first two men to make sure that they had been "taken care of," then, seeing that the fourth man was now sitting down and seemed unhurt, said, "You seem to be all right, here's another," and fired at him again. That the fourth man, Cabey, was shot only once was a fact not made known to Goetz or his attorneys until shortly before the trial. One bullet missed, fragmenting on the steel cab wall behind Cabey. (The missed shot would also be the basis of a charge of reckless endangerment of other passengers.)
At the Bronx civil trial Goetz testified the first shot was Canty, Allen second, the third shot missed, Cabey fourth, and Ramseur fifth. The following similar shooting sequence is from Goetz's website:
I decided to shoot as many as I could as quickly as I could. I did a fast draw, and shot with one hand (my right), pulling the trigger prior to the gun being aligned on the targets. All actual shots plus my draw time occurred easily within 1.6 seconds or less. This is not as difficult to do as some might think, and occasionally I give a description of the technique along with a re-enactment. The first shot hit Canty in the center of the chest. After the first shot my vision changed and I lost my sense of hearing. The second shot hit lightning fast Barry Allen in the upper rear shoulder as he was ducking (later the bullet was removed from 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 hit Ramseur's arm on the way into his left side. I immediately looked at the first two to make sure they were "taken care of," and then attempted to shoot Cabey again in the stomach, but the gun was empty. I thought Cabey was shot twice after reading a media account no shots missed; I had lost count of the shots and while under adrenaline I didn't even hear the shots or feel the kick of the gun. 'You don't look too bad, here's another', is a phrase I came up with later when trying to explain the shooting while I was under the impression that Cabey was shot twice. Cabey, who was briefly standing prior to the shooting, was sitting on the subway bench during all attempted shots. The others were standing. Shortly after the shooting my vision and hearing returned to normal.
Goetz does a shooting demonstration (five shots in 1.0 seconds) on the Biography Channel show Aftermath with William Shatner.
Goetz said one of the boys made gestures that may have implied he had a weapon. He rose and partly unzipped his jacket where the revolver was concealed, and plotted his "pattern of fire" for shooting them. He asked Canty what he had said, and he repeated his statement. At this Goetz unzipping his jacket the rest of the way, drew the gun, and shot Canty, hitting him in the center of the body. He then turned to shoot Allen, who had tried to flee, hitting him in the back, and then shot Ramseur, wounding him in the chest and arm. He then shot again, at Cabey, but may have missed. According to Goetz he then approached Cabey and shot him on the ground; however another witness disputed that Goetz shot Cabey a second time.
Cabey ended up slumped in the short seat in the corner of the car next to the conductor's cab. Whether Cabey was struck by the fourth shot or by the fifth was critical to Goetz's claim of self-defense; this issue was fiercely contested at trial. Medical testimony said that such an injury would render the lower half of Cabey's body instantly useless. According to the prosecution, the fourth shot missed; then Goetz shot a seated Cabey at point-blank range with the fifth. The defense theory of how Cabey ended up in the seat was that he was standing when hit by the fourth shot, then collapsed into the seat due to the lurching and swaying of the train; with the fifth shot being the shot that missed.
A summary of Goetz's statements to the police had become public two months after the incident, drawing intense media coverage. Probably most damaging to Goetz's public support and to his claim of acting in self-defense was his statement that he had said, "You don't look so bad, here's another," before firing at Cabey a second time. Media concentration on the summary's more damning portions created a public mindset that a wounded Cabey was shot a second time, with the second shot taken in a premeditated and deliberate way—an impression that stood uncorrected until the criminal trial two years later. Eleven years later, at least one city newspaper (The New York Times) was still reporting as fact that Cabey was shot twice.
At trial, one witness testified that Goetz approached to within "two to three feet" of a seated Cabey, then demonstrated how Goetz stood directly in front of Cabey and fired downward, a description that matched Goetz's published statements. Eight other independent witnesses testified that all shots came in "rapid succession"; one of these said the firing lasted "about a second". None of the eight heard a pause before the final shot, and none saw Goetz standing in front of Cabey.
Whether Goetz actually said aloud the words "You don't look so bad, here's another" or only thought them is still a matter of dispute. He has subsequently denied on several occasions making the statement. One source said, "In all probability, the defendant uttered these words only to himself and probably not even mouthing the words, but just saying them in his own mind as he squeezed the trigger that fifth time."
The terrified passengers ran to the other end and out of the car, leaving behind the two women who had been closest to the shooting, fallen or knocked down by the exodus, and immobilized by fear. Goetz talked to them to make sure they were not injured, then was approached by the conductor of the train. Goetz stated, "They tried to rob me." The conductor asked whether Goetz was a police officer, receiving the reply, "No." Some time after a brief conversation in which he refused to hand over his revolver, Goetz jumped to the tracks and ran south through the tunnel to the Chambers Street station, where he exited the system. He went home to gather some belongings, then rented a car and drove north to Bennington, Vermont, where he burned his blue jacket and dismantled the revolver, scattering the pieces in the woods north of town. He drove around New England for several days, registering at motels under various names and paying in cash.
On 26 December, an anonymous hotline caller told New York City police that Goetz matched the gunman's description, owned a gun, and had been mugged previously. On December 29, Goetz called his neighbor, Myra Friedman, who told him that police had come by his apartment looking for him, and had left notes asking to be contacted as soon as possible. He gave his side of the story to Friedman, and described his psychological state at the time:
Myra, in a situation like this, your mind, you're in a combat situation. Your mind is functioning. You're not thinking in a normal way. Your memory isn't even working normally. You are so hyped up. Your vision actually changes. Your field of view changes. Your capabilities change. What you are capable of changes. You are under adrenaline, a drug called adrenaline. And you respond very quickly, and you think very quickly. That's all. [...] You think! You think, you analyze, and you act. And in any situation, you just have to think more quickly than your opposition. That's all. You know. Speed is very important.
Goetz returned to New York City on 30 December, turned in the car, picked up some clothing and business papers at his apartment, rented another car and drove back to New England. Shortly after noon the next day, he walked into the Concord, New Hampshire, police headquarters and told the officer on duty, "I am the person they are seeking in New York."
Once the officer realized that Goetz was a genuine suspect, Goetz was given a Miranda warning and he waived his right to have an attorney present. After an interview that lasted over an hour, a Concord detective asked Goetz to consent to making an audiotaped statement. Goetz agreed, and a two-hour statement was recorded. That evening, New York City detectives and an assistant district attorney arrived in Concord, and Goetz submitted to a two-hour videotaped interview. Both interviews were eventually played back for the grand juries, the criminal trial, and a civil trial years later. When the audiotape was first played in open court, Goetz was described by The New York Times as "confused and emotional, alternately horrified by and defensive about his actions, and obsessed with justifying them."
In his statements, Goetz described his past mugging, in which he was injured and the only assailant arrested went unpunished. He called New York City "lawless" and expressed contempt for its justice system, calling it a "joke," a "sham," and "a disgrace". Goetz said that when the four men he shot surrounded him on the train, he feared being "beaten to a pulp" as well as being robbed. He denied any premeditation for the shooting, something that had been speculated on by the press. Asked what his intentions were when he drew his revolver, Goetz replied, "My intention was to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible." Later in the tape, Goetz said, "If I had more bullets, I would have shot 'em all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets." He added, "I was gonna, I was gonna gouge one of the guys' [Canty's] eyes out with my keys afterwards", but said he stopped when he saw the fear in his eyes. At the criminal trial, Goetz's defense attorneys, Barry Slotnick and Mark M. Baker, argued that this and other extreme statements by Goetz were the product of emotion and an overactive imagination.
Goetz was brought back to Manhattan on January 3, 1985 and arraigned on four charges of attempted murder, with bail set at $50,000. He was held in protective custody at the Rikers Island prison hospital. Refusing offers of bail assistance from the public and from his family, he posted bail with his own funds and was released on bond January 8.
Because of the loudness of the shots inside the confined space of the subway car, there were initial witness reports that suggested the gun involved was a .357 Magnum revolver. Goetz alluded to these reports in a December 2004 interview on the Opie and Anthony radio show, saying that the first shot he fired that afternoon had been unusually loud in part because it was the first shot fired by the small-frame .38 caliber revolver after the factory tests, which "cleaned the barrel."
After the incident, rumors spread that Goetz had been threatened with sharpened screwdrivers. This rumor was published as fact by some newspapers including The New York Times; however, neither Goetz nor the men made any such claim. During his subsequent statement to the police, Goetz expressed a belief that none of the young men had been armed. Paramedics and police did find a total of three screwdrivers on two of the men; when Canty testified at Goetz's criminal trial, he said they were to be used to break into video arcade change boxes and not as weapons.
Bernhard Goetz was born on November 7, 1947, in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City, the son of Gertrude and Bernhard Willard Goetz, Sr. His parents were German-born immigrants who had met in the United States; Goetz's father was Lutheran; his mother, who was Jewish, converted to her husband's faith.
While growing up, Goetz lived with his parents and three older siblings upstate, where his father ran a dairy farm and a bookbinding business. He and his sister attended boarding school in Switzerland for high school. Goetz returned to the United States in 1965 for college, and earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and nuclear engineering from New York University. By this time the family had relocated to Orlando, Florida; Goetz joined them and worked at his father's residential development business. He was briefly married, and after his divorce moved to New York City, where he started an electronics business out of his Greenwich Village apartment.
"The Subway Vigilante," as Goetz was labeled by New York City media, was front-page news for months, partly owing to the repressed passions the incident unleashed in New York and other cities. Public opinion tended to fall into one of three camps: Those in the first camp tended to believe Goetz's version of the incident, that he was aggressively accosted and surrounded by the four men and feared he was about to be beaten and robbed. Those in the second camp tended to believe the version told by the four men, that they were merely panhandling to get some money to play video games. A third camp believed that Goetz had indeed been threatened, but viewed the shooting as an unjustified overreaction.
Supporters viewed 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. The Guardian Angels, a volunteer patrol group of mostly black and Hispanic teenagers, collected thousands of dollars from subway riders toward a legal defense fund for Goetz. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization, supported Goetz. Its director, Roy Innis, a member of the National Rifle Association's governing board, offered to raise defense money, saying Goetz was "the avenger for all of us," and calling for a volunteer force of armed civilians to patrol the streets. The prior criminal convictions of three of the four men (and the published accounts of such) prevented them from gaining much sympathy from many people. A special hotline set up by police to seek information was swamped by calls supporting the shooter and calling him a hero. Harvard Professor of Government James Q. Wilson explained the broad sentiment by saying, "It may simply indicate that there are no more liberals on the crime and law-and-order issue in New York City, because they've all been mugged."
Some believed the version of the incident as told by the four men—that they were merely panhandling with neither intimidation nor threats of violence. This view was later discredited when Cabey admitted in a newspaper interview that his friends had indeed intended to rob Goetz, who looked like "easy bait". Some saw the incident as racial (with Goetz being white and the four young men black), and the jury verdict as a blow to race relations. Benjamin Hooks, director of the NAACP, said "The jury verdict was inexcusable. [...] It was proven—according to his own statements—that Goetz did the shooting and went far beyond the realm of self-defense. There was no provocation for what he did." Representative Floyd Flake agreed, saying, "I think that if a black had shot four whites, the cry for the death penalty would have been almost automatic." C. Vernon Mason, a candidate for district attorney and co-counsel for Cabey who was later disbarred, said Goetz's actions were racist, as did the Rev. Al Sharpton. Organized demonstrators accused Goetz of genocide. Goetz's racial language about criminal activity on 14th Street, allegedly made at a community meeting 18 months before the shooting—"The only way we're going to clean up this street is to get rid of the spics and niggers"—was offered as evidence of racial motivation for the shooting. Black political and religious leaders twice called for Federal civil rights investigations. An investigation by the office of U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani determined that the impetus for the shooting had been fear, not race. In an interview with Stone Phillips of Dateline NBC, Goetz later admitted that his fear was enhanced due to the fact that the alleged muggers were black.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau asked a grand jury to indict Goetz on four counts of attempted murder, four of assault, four of reckless endangerment, and one of criminal possession of a weapon. Because they would have to be granted immunity from prosecution, neither Goetz nor the four men he shot were called to testify. The 23 jurors heard witnesses, considered the police report of the shooting, and studied transcripts and tapes of the sometimes conflicting statements Goetz made to police in New Hampshire. The jury refused to indict Goetz on the more serious charges, voting indictments only for unlawful gun possession – one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, for carrying in public the loaded unlicensed gun used in the subway shooting, and two counts of possession in the fourth degree, for keeping two other unlicensed handguns in his home. The case was assigned to Judge Stephen Crane.
The shootings initially drew wide support from a public fearful and frustrated with rising crime rates and the state of the criminal justice system. A month after the grand jury's decision, a report summarizing statements Goetz made to police became public, indicating he had fired one shot at each of the four men, then checked their condition, and seeing no blood on the fourth, said "You don't look so bad, here's another" and fired again. The media now wrote of a change in the public mood and demanded that Goetz be tried on the attempted murder and assault charges while suggesting approaches that would allow Morgenthau to convene a new grand jury. Public figures including New York Governor Mario Cuomo raised questions based on the police summary. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called for a special prosecutor.
Stating that he had a new witness, Morgenthau obtained Judge Crane's authorization to convene a second grand jury, which heard testimony by Canty and Ramseur and indicted Goetz on charges of attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and weapons possession. Judge Crane later granted a motion by Goetz to dismiss the new indictments, based on alleged errors in the prosecutor's instructions to the jury regarding Goetz's defense of justification for the use of deadly force. A second factor in the dismissal was the judge's opinion that testimony by Canty and Ramseur "strongly appeared" to have been perjury, based on later public statements by Canty and Ramseur that they had intended to rob Goetz, and on a newspaper interview where Cabey stated that the other members of the group planned to frighten and rob Goetz because he "looked like easy bait". The judge allowed the weapons possession and reckless endangerment charges to stand.
The New York Court of Appeals, in People v. Goetz, reversed Judge Crane's dismissal, affirming the prosecutor's charge to the grand jury that a defendant's subjective belief that he is in imminent danger does not by itself justify the use of deadly force. The court agreed with the prosecutor that an objective belief, one that would be shared by a hypothetical reasonable person, is also required. The appeals court further held that Judge Crane's opinion that the testimony of Canty and Ramseur was perjurious was speculative and inappropriate. All charges were reinstated, and the case was sent to trial.
The case was defended by Barry Slotnick and Mark M. Baker. Slotnick argued that Goetz's 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]."
Goetz was tried before a mainly white Manhattan jury, six of whom had been victims of street crime. He was acquitted of the attempted murder and first-degree assault charges and convicted of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree – carrying a loaded, unlicensed weapon in a public place. He was sentenced to six months in jail, one year's psychiatric treatment, five years' probation, 200 hours community service, and a $5,000 fine. An appellate court affirmed the conviction and changed the sentence to one year in jail without probation. The order of the appellate court was affirmed because the trial court had not erred 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 the defendant guilty. This was not a directed verdict. Goetz served eight months.
A month after the shootings, Cabey's lawyers William Kunstler and Ron Kuby filed a civil suit against Goetz. The case was tried in 1996, eleven years later, in the Bronx, with race as the dominant theme. During jury selection, Kuby asked the mostly non-white prospective jurors whether they had ever been discriminated against. Goetz admitted to previous use of racial language and to smoking marijuana laced with PCP in the 1980s. Kuby portrayed Goetz as a racist aggressor; Goetz's defense was that when surrounded he reacted in fear of being again robbed and beaten. Newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin testified that in a 1985 interview, Cabey denied his involvement in an attempted robbery, but said that Canty, Allen, and Ramseur intended to rob Goetz.
The jury found that Goetz had acted recklessly and had deliberately inflicted emotional distress on Cabey. Jurors stated that Goetz shooting Cabey twice was a key factor in their decision. The jury awarded Cabey $43 million – $18 million for pain and suffering and $25 million in punitive damages.
Goetz subsequently filed for bankruptcy, saying that legal expenses had left him almost penniless. A judge of the United States Bankruptcy Court ruled that the $43 million jury award could not be dismissed by the bankruptcy. Asked in 2004 whether he was making payments on the judgment, Goetz responded "I don't think I've paid a penny on that", and referred any questions on the subject to his attorney.
The New York State legal standard for the self-defense justification use of deadly force shifted after rulings in the case. New York State jurors are now told to consider a defendant's background and to consider whether a hypothetical reasonable person would feel imperiled if that reasonable person were the defendant.
After reaching an all-time peak in 1990, crime in New York City dropped dramatically through the rest of the 1990s. As of 2006, New York City 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. New York City crime rates as of 2014 were comparable to those of 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 status as a popular cultural symbol of a public disgusted with urban crime and disorder.
Goetz occasionally gives media interviews about the 1984 subway incident that brought him into the public eye. In 2004, Goetz was interviewed by Nancy Grace on Larry King Live, where he stated his actions were good for New York City and forced the city to address crime. In 2010 he was interviewed and did a shooting demonstration on the inaugural episode of The Biography Channel's documentary show Aftermath with William Shatner.