People v. Goetz

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People v. Goetz
Seal of the New York Court of Appeals.svg
CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Full case nameThe People of the State of New York v. Bernhard Goetz
DecidedJuly 8 1986
Citation(s)68 N.Y.2d 96, 497 N.E.2d 41, 73 A.L.R.4th 971, 55 USLW 2107
Case history
Prior historyDefendant indicted (Jan. 25, 1985, Mar. 27, 1985); Supreme Court, Trial Term, New York County, dismissed indictment, 131 Misc. 2d 1, 502 N.Y.2d 577 (Jan. 21, 1986); Supreme Court, Appellate Division, affirmed, 116 A.D.2d 316, 501 N.Y.S.2d 326 (Apr. 17, 1986)
Subsequent historyDefendant convicted after trial of one count of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Third Degree, upheld on appeal by New York Court of Appeals, 73 N.Y.2d 751 (Nov 22, 1988)
1) The defense of justification which permits the use of deadly physical force is not a purely subjective standard; the actor must not only have the subjective belief that deadly physical force is necessary, but those beliefs must also be objectively reasonable. 2) The mere appearance of perjured testimony to authorize a 2nd Grand Jury is not sufficient to sustain a dismissal of the resulting indictment.
Court membership
Chief judgeSol Wachtler
Associate judgesBernard S. Meyer, Richard D. Simons, Judith S. Kaye, Fritz W. Alexander II, Vito J. Titone, Stewart F. Hancock, Jr.
Case opinions
MajorityWachtler, joined by Meyer, Simons, Kaye, Alexander, Titone, Hancock
Laws applied
New York Penal Law Art. 35

People v. Goetz, 68 N.Y.2d 96 (N.Y. 1986), "one of the most controversial cases in recent American history", was a court case involving subjective and objective standards of reasonableness in using deadly force for self-defense.[1]: 554–559  The final decision was written by Chief Judge Sol Wachtler in the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state).[1]: 554–559  While the decision does not mention it, this case sparked a media frenzy at the time due to the circumstances of the underlying incident. The defendant, Bernhard Goetz, was both vilified and exalted in the press and in public opinion.[2]

Grand Jury testimony[edit]

As this decision was issued prior to a final disposition in the case, the facts presented here were still in dispute and the Court summarized the testimony given before the Grand Jury. The incident concerned a mass shooting that occurred in New York City on December 22, 1984. Four young black men (Troy Canty, Darryl Cabey, James Ramseur, and Barry Allen) boarded a New York City Subway car in the Bronx. Two of the men were carrying screwdrivers in their coats, which they later admitted were planned to be used to break into arcade game coin boxes.

Bernhard Goetz, a white man, boarded the train in Manhattan, and sat near the four men. He was carrying an unlicensed .38 caliber pistol on a waistband holster, which was loaded with five rounds of ammunition. Canty approached Goetz and told him to give them five dollars. At this point, Goetz stood up, unholstered his pistol, and quickly fired four shots. Three of the men were hit, while Cabey was not struck. Goetz then fired another shot at Cabey, severing his spinal cord.

Goetz fled the scene and on December 31 surrendered himself to the police in New Hampshire. He gave two lengthy statements to the police. Goetz admitted to carrying an unlicensed pistol in New York City since 1981, which he purchased after he was injured during a mugging. Goetz stated that when he was approached by the men on December 22, he could tell that they wanted to "play with me." Although he did not believe any of the men were armed, he stated that he feared that he would be "maimed." Goetz established a "pattern of fire," firing from left to right. He admitted to shooting Cabey with his last bullet after the initial barrage.


The case, defended by Barry Slotnick, was presented to a Grand Jury, which returned an indictment on January 25, 1985, charging Goetz with one count of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Third Degree, and two counts of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree. The Grand Jury dismissed charges of Attempted Murder, Assault, and Reckless Endangerment.

The prosecutor later sought permission from the court to resubmit the case to another Grand Jury with additional evidence. On March 27, 1985, the second Grand Jury returned an indictment charging Goetz with four counts of Attempted Murder, four counts of Assault, one count of Reckless Endangerment, and one count of Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Third Degree. This indictment was consolidated with the prior indictment.

On October 14, 1985, Goetz moved to dismiss the second indictment, claiming that the prosecutor's instructions with respect to the issue of justification were erroneous and prejudicial. While the motion was pending, a columnist with the New York Daily News interviewed Cabey in the hospital. Cabey told the columnist that the men had approached Goetz with the intention of robbing him. The following day, one of the first police officers on the scene informed the prosecutor that Cabey had admitted to him that the men intended to rob Goetz. The prosecutor informed the court and defendant about this communication. Goetz then expanded his motion to dismiss to include the claim that Ramseur and Canty, who had testified before the Grand Jury, must have committed perjury.

On January 21, 1986, the Criminal Term court granted the defendant's motion to dismiss with respect to all counts except for the reckless endangerment charge, with leave to represent to a third Grand Jury. The reasoning by the court was that the prosecutor, when charging the Grand Jury with respect to the justification defense, incorrectly told the Grand Jury that they must consider whether Goetz's actions were those of a "reasonable man in [Goetz's] situation". The court held that this charge created an objective test of Goetz's beliefs. The court held that the test for whether the use of deadly force is justified should be entirely subjective, focused on the defendant's state of mind at the time of the incident. An additional reason given by the court for dismissal was that it was extremely likely that the Grand Jury based their decision on perjured testimony, pursuant to the Daily News article and the subsequent statement by the police officer.

On April 17, 1986, the Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the lower court, prompting the appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Judge Sol Wachtler wrote for a unanimous court. The Court held that to use an entirely subjective test to determine whether a defendant appropriately used deadly physical force would be very dangerous, in that it would permit a jury to acquit every defendant who believed that his actions were reasonable, regardless of how bizarre the rationale. The Court explained that the justification statute requires an objective element, in that deadly physical force is only permissible if a reasonable person would believe that he is in imminent fear of serious physical injury or death. This would prevent the slippery slope of a different reasonable test necessary for every single defendant claiming justification.

With respect to the lower court's alternate theory for dismissal, the perjury issue, the Court held that there was no basis for the lower court to suspect perjury, and that there was no basis in statute or case law permitting a dismissal merely because new information comes to light which may lead a defendant's acquittal.

Therefore, the Court reversed the lower court on both grounds, and reinstated all counts of the indictment.

Standard for justification[edit]

The standard for justification shifted after rulings in the case. Jurors are now told to consider a defendant's background and to consider whether a reasonable person would feel imperiled if that reasonable person was the defendant.


The jury in the criminal trial acquitted Goetz of all the charges except criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. One of the victims of the shooting, Darrell Cabey, who remained paralyzed, sued Goetz, represented by Ron Kuby, who had previously defended Long Island Rail Road mass murderer Colin Ferguson. The jury found in favor of Cabey and awarded him the sum of $18,000,000 in compensatory damages and $25,000,000 in punitive damages.[3]

Goetz declared bankruptcy in 1996, freeing himself from an estimated $16m in legal debts, but not from the $43m judgment.[4]


  1. ^ a b Criminal Law - Cases and Materials, 7th ed. 2012, Wolters Kluwer Law & Business; John Kaplan, Robert Weisberg, Guyora Binder, ISBN 978-1-4548-0698-1, [1]
  2. ^ Magnuson, E., et al; Up in Arms Over Crime (Time, April 8, 1985)
  3. ^ "Arizona Daily Wildcat"; Jury hands down $43M verdict in lawsuit against Goetz ("Associated Press", August 2, 2004)
  4. ^ Holloway, Lynette (August 2, 1996). "Bankrupt, Goetz Still Owes Victim" – via

External links[edit]