New Yorkers have much to ponder after Goetz trial. Concerns about crime and judicial treatment of blacks remain strong
The Bernhard Goetz case has left New York's political and community leaders struggling for ways to address key urban issues: fear of crime, citizen protection, and the treatment of blacks in the criminal-justice system. On Tuesday, observers in the packed courtroom gasped as the long list of charges were answered in all cases but one with ``not guilty'' by the jury foreman. Mr. Goetz was acquitted on charges of attempted murder and assault stemming from his shooting on Dec. 22, 1984, of four youths he claims were about to rob and beat him in a downtown subway. The jury convicted Goetz on one minor charge of illegal gun possession.
New Yorkers' reactions ran the gamut of emotions in this complex case:
``There are all types of brutality on the subway,'' says a woman from Brooklyn who gave her first name as Eleanor. ``But if we all take the law into our own hands, we'd be shooting each other at each opportunity. There is no justice; it's `case closed' when it's blacks.''
``I've seen what these kids can do,'' says Irza Almonoro of Manhattan. ``I ride the subway less because of fear. If I was on the jury, I would have gone the same way.''
``I am shaken and dismayed by this verdict,'' says Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins. ``I worry that it could have profound effect on this city, because it seems to be a clear and open invitation to vigilantism.''
``People are not going to run out and get guns and shoot young black men who ask them directions,'' says Tom Repetto, president of the Citizen's Crime Commission in New York City. ``People can make distinctions. ... Let's do something [about the fear of crime].''
Steve Gillers, who teaches law at New York University, says he was troubled and surprised at the verdict. He can't understand why the jury felt Goetz's action was an acceptable response to four unarmed black youths, dressed in street clothes. ``They are either wrong, or right. And if they are right, New York City is the loser,'' he says.
Like others, Mr. Gillers says the justice system is not the solution to such concerns.``It is the tail to the dog of the community,'' he says.
Enlightened community leadership and analysis of the problems that plague the city and lead to explosive situations like the Goetz case are the first step.
The city and the Metropolitan Transit Authority should not simply say that things are ``lovely'' in the subway system, Mr. Repetto says.
``The public wants to hear that officials recognize the problem [of crime], care about it, and are doing something,'' he says.
As an example of lack of action, Repetto points out that there has been no permanent replacement to the former transit police chief, who resigned in February in light of criticism of the way the police handled the case of Michael Stewart, a young black man who died in police custody after being arrested by transit police.
Lee Jones, a spokesman for Mayor Edward Koch, says actions have been taken since the shooting to improve safety in the subway. The current transit police force is the largest in the city's history, and a policy of having an officer on every subway train in the city at night is in place.
Not only does the city want to reduce the fear of muggings on the subway, but send a message to potential muggers that there is a likelihood that they will be caught, says Mr. Jones.
Mr. Goetz caught the attention of the city, the country, and the world when he pulled his gun on the four young men. In a city with a reputation for violence and crime, it was seen as a confirmation of stereotypes. There was a groundswell of support for Goetz from some quarters. Others saw him as a disturbed man. Still others decried the vigilantism that his act seemed to embody.
Even city leaders waffled on the case. Mayor Koch was at first appalled by the act, then defended it, then took the middle ground, saying citizens have a right to self-defense, but that the city does not condone vigilantism.
A first grand jury only found reason to indict Goetz on weapons charges. After a round of public protest and the introduction of new evidence, a second grand jury charged Goetz with attempted murder and assault. Such confusing signals color the situation, says Gillers. ``The verdict is not pure when you see it against those aspects.''
Interest in the case has been heard around the country, discussed on radio talk shows, seen in T-shirts for sale in tourist shops in the city.
``I think [the case] is symbolic,'' says Yale Kamisar, a criminal law professor at the University of Michigan. There are only a handful of legal cases that the general public is aware of, and Goetz is one of them.
``I think most people had already made up their mind,'' Mr. Kamisar says. ``It's symbolic without regard to the facts ... without [people] wanting to know the details.''
Now the city faces the task of trying to move forward from the controversial case. Goetz's attorney, Barry I. Slotnick, says his client will appeal the one gun charge he was found guilty of. Activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton have said that they will form a black patrol on the subways.
And the city also awaits the next controversial trial that will confront the city in September, barring a change in court schedules. That will be the trial of white youths who attacked and chased several black men in Howard Beach, Queens, leading to the death of one of the men as he tried to cross an expressway in flight from the youths.