1984 New York City Subway shooting

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1984 New York City Subway shooting
LocationNew York City, New York, U.S.
DateDecember 22, 1984; 37 years ago (1984-12-22)
Attack type
WeaponSmith & Wesson Model 38
Injured4 (Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, James Ramseur)
MotivePerceived self-defense
ConvictedBernhard Hugo Goetz
  • Guilty of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon
  • Not guilty on remaining charges
LitigationGoetz ordered to pay $43 million to Cabey in civil trial for reckless and deliberate infliction of emotional distress
Sentence1 year in jail (paroled after 8 months)

On December 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz (/ˈɡɛts/[1]) shot four young men on a New York City Subway train in Manhattan after they allegedly tried to rob him.[2][3][4][5]

Goetz surrendered to police nine days later and was charged with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment, and several firearms offenses. Initially Goetz was viewed by most as a victim and by some as a vigilante, and he received widespread public recognition and support. A grand jury refused to indict Goetz on the more serious charges, voting indictments only for criminal gun possession. However, public opinion about Goetz wavered due to statements and alleged damaging details of the incident that later were released by the prosecution.[6] Goetz was then re-indicted by a second grand jury on more serious charges. At a later jury trial he was found guilty of one count of carrying an unlicensed firearm, for which he served eight months of a one-year sentence. In 1996, Darrell Cabey, one of those Goetz shot and who was left paraplegic and brain damaged as a result of his injuries, obtained a civil judgment of $43 million against Goetz.[7]

The incident sparked a nationwide debate on crime in major US cities, the legal limits of self-defense based on Cabey being shot once or twice, and the extent to which the citizenry could rely on the police to secure their safety.[4] Goetz, dubbed the "Subway Vigilante" by the New York press, came to symbolize New Yorkers' frustrations with the high crime rates of the 1980s. Goetz was both praised and vilified in the media and public opinion, and the New York criminal justice system came under increased public scrutiny and criticism. The incident has been cited as a contributing factor to the groundswell movement against urban crime and disorder,[8] and successful National Rifle Association campaigns to loosen restrictions for concealed carrying of firearms.[9]

Context and background[edit]

Bernhard Goetz stated that three years before the incident he had been attacked in the Canal Street subway station while transporting electronic equipment by three men who attempted to rob him.[10] The attackers smashed Goetz into a plate-glass door and threw him to the ground, injuring his chest and knee.[11][12] 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 than the time spent by Goetz himself, and he was angered further when this attacker was charged only with criminal mischief for ripping Goetz's jacket.[13][11] Goetz subsequently applied for a permit to carry a concealed 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 revolver during a trip to Florida.[13]

At the time New York City street crime received little media coverage. N.Y. Governor Mario Cuomo was considered a leading future Democratic presidential candidate.[14] The subway shooting made news around the world, dismal subway train images and city crime received widespread coverage, and the incident had significant political overtones.


The shooting occurred on a 2 train

In the early afternoon of Saturday, December 22, 1984, four young men from the Bronx

  1. Barry Allen, 19 years old
  2. Troy Canty, 19 years old
  3. Darrell Cabey, 19 years old
  4. James Ramseur, 18 years old

—boarded a downtown 2 train (a Broadway–Seventh Avenue express). The teenagers, each of whom had previously been arrested and convicted at least once, stated they were on their way to rob a video arcade in Manhattan.[3][15] When the train arrived at the 14th Street station in Manhattan at about 1:30PM, fifteen to twenty other passengers remained with them in the R22 subway car,[16][17] the seventh car of the ten-car train.[12]: 23 [18]

Goetz entered the 14th Street station on the way downtown to meet some friends for a holiday drink. The train entered the station and Goetz approached the rearmost car door. Canty was lying on the long bench just to the right of this door. Allen was seated to Canty's left, on the short seat on the left side of this door. Ramseur and Cabey were seated across from this door on the short seat by the conductor's cab. A woman passenger was seated several feet from Canty's right.

The door opened, Goetz entered and crossed the aisle, and took a seat on the long bench across from Canty and this woman, approximately centered between them. Simultaneously a male passenger sat down at Goetz's left at the far end of Goetz's bench. The doors closed and the train left for the next express stop at Chambers Street, typically a four-minute ride.[12]

According to Goetz's statement to the Concord police department (New Hampshire), several seconds later Canty asked him, "How are you doing?" Goetz responded, "Fine." Goetz said the group gave signals to each other, and shortly thereafter Canty and Allen rose from their seats and moved over to Goetz's left, blocking him off from the other passengers in the car. Canty then said, "Give me five dollars." Goetz subsequently pulled a handgun and fired 5 shots at the four, wounding all. Canty and Ramseur testified at the criminal trial that they were begging, and had only requested the money, not demanded it. Cabey did not testify and Allen took the Fifth Amendment.[12]

Versions of shooting[edit]

Sources differ in reporting the sequence of shots fired, timing of shots, and whether Cabey was shot once or twice. The following are four versions from significant or reliable sources describing the sequence of shots:

Cabey shot on the fourth shot[edit]

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 verbatim 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). [19] 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."[20]

Goetz does a dry fire shooting demonstration (five shots in 1.0 seconds at 4 hypothetical targets on both sides of him) on the Biography Channel show Aftermath with William Shatner.[21]

Multiple criminal trial witnesses testified all shots came in "rapid succession";[18][22] Criminal trial medical evidence showed Cabey was shot once in left side, and not shot twice as had been widely reported.[23]

Cabey shot on the fourth and fifth shots[edit]

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."[6] This sequence of shots was discredited at the criminal trial when it was revealed that one of the five shots had missed and Cabey was shot once in the left side; however, the misconception that Cabey was shot twice occurred long after the criminal trial.[23]

Cabey shot on the fifth shot[edit]

"Speed is everything," Goetz said in a videotaped statement made after he surrendered nine days later.[12]: 60  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.[12]: 60, 153  At the civil trial years later he said, "I was trying to get as many of them as I could as quickly as I could."[24] Other sources simply 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.[18]: 117 [12]: 251  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 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."[25]

According to his statements to police, Goetz checked the first two men to make sure that they had been "taken care of," then upon seeing that the fourth man, Cabey, was now sitting down rocking side to side and seemed not seriously hurt, said, "You seem to be all right, here's another," and fired another shot into Cabey's stomach.[26] Cabey actually was shot only once in the left side,[12]: 24 [27][23][18]: 175 [28] a fact not made known to Goetz or his attorneys until shortly before the trial. One bullet had missed, fragmenting on the steel cab wall behind Cabey — this missed shot would also be the basis of a charge of reckless endangerment of other passengers.[28] After the criminal trial Goetz denied shooting Cabey on the 5th shot, saying he had been confused by misinformation.

Time magazine's theory (April 8, 1985)[edit]

Goetz said one of the boys made gestures that may have implied he had a weapon.[13] Canty then approached Goetz for the $5. Goetz rose and partly unzipped his jacket where the revolver was concealed, and plotted his "pattern of fire" for shooting them.[13] Goetz asked Canty what he said, who repeated his statement. According to Troy Canty, Goetz then unzipped his jacket the rest of the way, drew the gun, assumed a combat stance gripping the revolver with both hands, and shot Canty through the center of his 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.[13]

Cabey and the "here's another" issue[edit]

Cabey ended up slumped in the short seat in the corner of the car next to the conductor's cab.[17] Whether Cabey was struck by the fourth shot or by the fifth was critical to Goetz's claim of self-defense and thus an issue fiercely contested at trial.[18]: 69, 126  Medical experts testified 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.[12]: 208 

A summary of Goetz's statements to the police had become public two months after the incident, drawing intense media coverage. Perhaps 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.

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 shooting Cabey in the stomach, a description that matched Goetz's published statements,[12]: 138 [18]: 123–125  but contradicted medical evidence that Cabey was shot once in the left side.[25] Eight other independent witnesses testified that all shots came in "rapid succession";[18]: 171  one of these said the firing lasted "about a second".[12]: 102  None of the eight heard a pause before the final shot, and none saw Goetz standing in front of Cabey.[12]: 235 

Whether Goetz actually said aloud the words "You don't look so bad, here's another" is still a matter of dispute. He has subsequently denied on several occasions making the statement.[29] 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."[18]: 175 

Flight and surrender[edit]

The terrified passengers ran to the other end and out of the car, leaving behind two women who had been close to the shooting, immobilized by fear. According to Goetz's statements to Concord police department, Canty was lying on the subway floor to the right of a seated woman who had remained in the same position she had been when previously seated near Canty. This woman was staring straight ahead in shock. Allen was laying on his stomach on her bench with his head in her lap. Ramseur was slumped on the floor near the north end door of the subway car, and Cabey was slumped on the floor near him next to the conductor's cab. A second woman near the center of the subway car had fainted and was lying face down. The male who prior to the shooting was sitting on Goetz's left had exited or was in the process of exiting the car. Goetz asked the two frightened women if they had been injured and both said they were not. He then went towards the south end of the car, briefly looked around, and sat down with his head in his hands covering his eyes, occasionally looking around. Shortly afterwards the train conductor entered the car and loudly exclaimed "Whats going on?" The conductor approached Goetz, still seated, and asked him what happened. Goetz pointed to the north end of the car and then told him, "I don't know ... they tried to rob me and I shot them."[12]: 102  The conductor then went to the two women to check if they were injured. The conductor returned to Goetz and asked if he was a police officer, receiving the reply, "No." and then asked Goetz for the gun, receiving the reply, "No."[12]: 102  The conductor then left the car.

Some time later the train slowed down, continued at a slow rate, and then stopped before the next station. Goetz remained seated for 15–30 seconds, and then exited the south end of the car. He climbed down to the tracks, ran north a few steps, and then reversed direction and ran south through the tunnel to the Chambers Street station, where he climbed onto the empty end of the passenger platform and then exited the station via the stairs.[18] Later Goetz said sirens were going off everywhere. He took a cab back home to 14th Street to gather some belongings, and then rented a car and drove north to Bennington, Vermont, where he burned the blue jacket he had been wearing 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 December 26, an anonymous hotline caller told New York City police that Goetz matched the gunman's description, owned a gun, and had been mugged previously.[30][31] 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.[11] He gave his side of the story to Friedman, and described his psychological state at the time:[11]

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 December 30, 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."[31]

Statements to police[edit]

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."[32]

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 surrounded him on the train, he feared being "beaten to a pulp" as well as being robbed.[33] He denied any premeditation for the shooting, something that had been speculated on by the press.[12]: 58  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."[26] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36]

Early reports[edit]

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, reports spread that Goetz had been threatened with sharpened screwdrivers.[37] This rumor was published as fact by some media; however, neither Goetz nor the men made any such claim,[12]: 117  and Goetz has repeatedly denied he was threatened with screwdrivers.[38] 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.[3]

On February 27, 1985, the prosecutors office released evidence that Cabey had been shot twice.[6] This was reported as fact in the media and was not corrected until the criminal trial more than a year later.[18]


Bernhard Hugo Goetz was born in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of New York City's Queens borough on November 7, 1947,[39] the son of Gertrude (née Karlsberg) and Bernhard Willard Goetz, Sr. His parents were German immigrants who met in the U.S.[40][41] His father was Lutheran; his mother, who was Jewish, converted to Lutheranism.[42][43][18]: 10 [44] While growing up, Goetz lived with his parents and three older siblings in Upstate New York, where his father ran a dairy farm and a bookbinding business.[13] At the age of 12, he was sent to Switzerland, where he and his sister attended boarding schools.[45] 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.[13] 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. After his divorce, he moved back to New York City, where he started an electronics business out of his Greenwich Village apartment.[13]

Public reaction[edit]

"The Subway Vigilante", as Goetz was labeled by New York City media, was front-page news for months, partly due 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 teenagers and feared he was about to be beaten and robbed. Those in the second camp tended to believe the version told by the four teenagers, 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.[citation needed]


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.[46] The Guardian Angels, a volunteer patrol group of mostly black and Hispanic teenagers,[47] collected thousands of dollars from subway riders toward a legal defense fund for Goetz.[48] The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a right-leaning civil rights organization, supported Goetz.[49] CORE's director, Roy Innis, (who would later be elected to the executive board of the NRA[50][51]) offered to raise defense money. Innis, who lost two of his sons to inner-city gun violence, said Goetz was "the avenger for all of us," and called for a volunteer force of armed civilians to patrol the streets.[48]

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.[52][48]

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."[48]

Other viewpoints[edit]

Some believed the version of the incident as initially told by the four men – that they were merely panhandling with neither intimidation nor threats of violence. This view was later discredited when Darrell Cabey, who had been paralyzed by Goetz's gunshot, admitted during an interview with columnist Jimmy Breslin eleven months after the shooting, that his friends had indeed intended to rob Goetz, who looked like "easy bait". This account was contested in court because Cabey was in the hospital with diminished but improving cognitive capabilities.[53][54]

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."[55] Co-counsel for Cabey C. Vernon Mason, a candidate for district attorney who was later disbarred, said Goetz's actions were racist,[55] as did Rev. Al Sharpton.

The Los Angeles Times reported that demonstrators outside his courtroom chanted "Bernhard Goetz, you can't hide; we charge you with genocide."[56] 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"[11] – was offered as evidence of racial motivation for the shooting. Black political and religious leaders twice called for Federal civil rights investigations.[57]

An investigation by the office of U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani determined that the impetus for the shooting had been fear, not race.[58] In an interview with Stone Phillips of Dateline NBC, Goetz later admitted that his fear was enhanced due to the fact that the attempted muggers were black.[59]

Grand juries[edit]

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.[60] 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.[6][61] On January 25, the grand 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.[60] 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.[46][62] A month after the grand jury's decision, a report summarizing statements Goetz made to Concord police department was released by the prosecution, in which Goetz said he shot 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 shot the fourth again.[6] Contradictory evidence that all four were shot only once was withheld from the public. The media now wrote of a change in the public mood[63][64][13] 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.[65] New York State Governor Mario Cuomo stated "Everyone knows Goetz was wrong." Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called for a special prosecutor.[61]

Announcing there was a new unnamed witness (actually Troy Canty), DA Morgenthau obtained in March 1985 Judge Crane's sealed authorization[66] 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.[67]

In January 1986, Judge Crane granted a motion by Goetz to dismiss these new indictments, but gave the prosecutor the option of re-submitting these charges to a third grand jury. The judge's decision was based on alleged errors in the prosecutor's instructions to the jury regarding Goetz's defense of justification for the use of deadly force and the judge's opinion that Canty and Ramseur "strongly appeared" to have perjured themselves, based on later public statements that they had intended to rob Goetz,[67][68] 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".[69] The judge allowed the weapons possession and reckless endangerment charges to stand.[68] The option of a third grand jury was unwelcomed by the prosecution as a principal witness at the second grand jury, James Ramseur, had since been convicted of a brutal rape and also was discovered to have staged his own kidnapping, and this and Cabey's devastating newspaper interview about a robbery could not be withheld from a reasonably well informed third grand jury. Subsequently, the prosecution appealed Judge Crane's decision.

In July 1986, the New York Court of Appeals, in People v. Goetz,[70] reversed Judge Crane's dismissal and revised the New York law on self-defense using the "reasonable man" standard. The court affirmed that 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 required; shots can be judged separately and must be reasonable. 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.[25] The author of the Court of Appeals decision, Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, was indicted in 1992 for extortion, racketeering, and $20,000 blackmail of Joy Silverman, beneficiary of an estate from which Wachtler as executor had already been paid an $805,000 estate fee.[71] Subsequently, Wachtler resigned as a judge and from the bar.


Criminal trial[edit]

The case was defended by Barry Slotnick and Mark M. Baker. Slotnick argued that Goetz's actions fell within the New York State's 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]."

In December, 1986, jury selection began and in April, 1987, the trial commenced before a Manhattan jury of 10 whites and 2 blacks, of whom 6 had been victims of street crime.[27][72] Goetz 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.[67] 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.

Civil trial[edit]

A month after the shootings, Cabey's lawyers William Kunstler and Ron Kuby filed a civil suit against Goetz.[73] The civil case was tried in 1996, over eleven years later, in the Bronx, with race as the dominant theme.[74] 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 PCP-laced marijuana during the 1980s.[75] 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.[54] William Kunstler died prior to the trial.

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.[76] The jury awarded Cabey $43 million – $18 million for pain and suffering and $25 million in punitive damages.[76]

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 discharged by the bankruptcy.[77] 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.[78]


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.[79]

After reaching an all-time peak in 1990, crime in New York City dropped dramatically through the rest of the 1990s, with Rudy Giuliani emphasizing reduction in crime as mayor.[80] 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.[81][82]

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.[83]

Goetz occasionally gives media interviews about the 1984 subway incident that brought him into the public eye. In 2001 he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City. 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.[78] In 2010 he was interviewed and did a dry fire shooting demonstration on the inaugural episode of The Biography Channel's documentary show Aftermath with William Shatner.[45]

In March 1985, James Ramseur reported to police that two men apparently hired by Goetz kidnapped and attempted to murder him.[84] The following day, after detectives played back to Ramseur the emergency 911 recording reporting the kidnapping, Ramseur admitted it was his voice on the call and to fabricating the report. Ramseur explained it was merely to test police response when a black person was a crime victim, and was not prosecuted for this hoax. Ramseur was convicted in 1986 of the 1985 rape, sodomizing, and robbery of a young pregnant woman and hence was incarcerated at the time of the Goetz trial. Ramseur was conditionally released in 2002, but was returned to prison for a parole violation in 2005. He finished his sentence in July 2010. In 2011, on the 27th anniversary of the shooting, James Ramseur died of a drug overdose in a possible suicide at age 45.[85]

In November 2013 Goetz was arrested for allegedly selling marijuana.[86] These charges were dismissed in September 2014[87] and 60 days later New York City effectively decriminalized marijuana possession under 25 grams.[88]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Law & Order episodes Subterranean Homeboy Blues and Self Defense have similarities with the subway shooting incident.[citation needed]
  • Goetz is mentioned in several songs such as:
  • In the Family Guy episode "Stewie Kills Lois" Quagmire says Peter is a killer like Bernie Goetz and reveals he used to do a stand-up comedy bit on him.
  • The shooting partially inspired the 2019 film Joker, whose depiction of the Joker is partially based on Goetz.[89][90] The titular character is a lower income, inner city resident who has been jumped and robbed multiple times, so he obtains a firearm to defend himself. When he gets jumped on the subway, he shoots and kills the perpetrators and flees the scene, with the shooting earning strong media coverage and the then-unknown perpetrator inadvertently becoming a folk hero among lower-class city residents who are angry about being victimized; in this case, the victims are wealthy white men, unlike Goetz's victims. Todd Phillips, who wrote, produced and directed the film, grew up in New York City and remembered the 1984 subway shooting from his youth.[90]


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External links[edit]