Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Art Imitates Life: Bernard Goetz

It is amazing how inspiration can come about. I was watching the second episode of Season One of the original Law and Order (Originally broadcast back in 1990) and I notice that the episode is strangely reminiscent of a heated case in New York City during 1984. The episode shows an incident on the New York City Subway where a young white woman pulls a gun out of a crowded Subway train and shoots a number of young black men. Now, sitting there I’m thinking that Law and Order made a few noticeable changes to the Bernard Goetz incident of December 22, 1984. Before I go into what happened on that day almost 27 years ago, allow me to describe to you how the New York City Subway system looked during those days from a person who lived it.

I was in my early teens during that time and the trains and the city were nothing compared to what they are today. The trains were dirty, full of graffiti, lacking air conditioning, stations in disrepair and crime in the city uncontrolled. By the end of 1984 the murder count for the entire city sat at 1,786 with a peak of 2,605 murders in 1990. Consider that in 1995 murders stood at 1,550, 2000 at 952 persons killed and 781 in 2009. People today have it good compared to the early 1980’s, but I digress. That is the world that Bernard Goetz lived in. As per’s entry on Bernard Goetz here is how the incident went down:

On December 22, 1984, Goetz entered an empty Manhattan train, carrying an unlicensed .38 caliber revolver. Also on the car were four teenagers: Troy Canty, Barry Allen, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur. As witness testimony later stated, Goetz had barely taken his seat when the young men approached Goetz for $5. When Goetz refused, Canty responded, "Give me your money." Suspecting he was being set up for another mugging, Goetz stood up and said, "You all can have it." Goetz started firing his revolver, wounding all four teens. When the train came to a stop, a startled Goetz ran out of the car and eventually fled the city, making his way to Concord, New Hampshire. Eight days after the shooting, Goetz finally turned himself into police.

Where the Mayor of New York City Edward I. Koch stated that “We will not permit people to take the law into their own hands,” the normal folks celebrated the shooter. People saw this incident as a way for the people to take the streets back from the criminal and the thugs who were terrorizing them. On the flip side, race relations in the city, which were already strained, worsened after the Goetz incident. Things came to a head with the two trials against Bernard Goetz.

In the June 1987 trial, Goetz was acquitted of charges of attempted murder and assault at his trial and was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling. The second trial was set for October 1987 for the unlicensed gun charges. The jury found Goetz guilty and sentenced to six months in jail and five years' probation. Goetz’s actions on that subway car in 1984 led to the paralyzing of Darrell Cabey which in turn led to a lawsuit being filed by Cabey in which a judgment against Goetz was $43-million in damages.

Goetz would live a life of brief celebrity after his prison term and has faded into obscurity becoming a footnote for the “good-old days” of the New York City of the 1980’s.


For Further Reading:
- Click Here to access the opinion of the Court of Appeals for the case The People of the State of New York, Appellant, v Bernhard Goetz, Respondent., 68 NY2d 96
- Click Here to access the article WHEN BERNIE GOETZ WAS NEW YORK CITY from the New York Daily News website dated December 19, 2004
- Click Here to access the New York Crime Rates 1960 - 2010 from the
- Click Here to access the article Goetz Given 6-Month Term on Gun Charge from the New York Times website dated October 20, 1987
- Click Here to access the article The Goetz Verdict from the New York Times website dated April 24, 1996