People v. Goetz

-! bgcolor="6699FF" | Case opinion
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-! bgcolor="6699FF" | Laws applied
New York Penal Law Art. 35"People v. Goetz", 68 N.Y.2d 96 (N.Y. 1986), was a decision by the New York Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) written by Chief Judge Sol Wachtler. 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.__TOC__


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. On December 22, 1984, four young black men (Troy Canty, Darryl Cabey, James Ramseur, and Barry Allen) boarded a 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 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 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 Canty 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 with 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

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.

tandard for justification

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.

External links

* [ Transcript of court's decision]

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