December 23

This Day in History

Crime

Dec 23, 1984:

Bernhard Goetz goes on the lam

Bernhard Goetz, who shot four young black men on a subway car the previous day, flees New York City and heads for New Hampshire after becoming the central figure in a media firestorm.

On the afternoon of December 22, Troy Canty, Barry Allen, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur reportedly approached Goetz as he was riding the subway and demanded $5. Goetz pulled out a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver and shot each of the boys in response. He then shot Cabey a second time, severing his spinal cord. After refusing to give up his gun, he walked to the end of train, jumped onto the tracks, and disappeared.

Immediately catching the public's attention, the case ignited serious debate and controversy. While the so-called "Subway Vigilante" was on the lam in New Hampshire, police discovered that three of the shooting victims had been carrying screwdrivers in their pockets during the attempted mugging and all had significant criminal records. Many observers immediately used this information as justification for Goetz's behavior, congratulating him for standing up to the boys.

Goetz turned himself in to New Hampshire police on December 31. Back in New York, he was released on $50,000 bail while a grand jury was convened. Goetz was initially indicted on only three counts of illegal gun possession, but prosecutors were dissatisfied with the insignificant charges, and the grand jury reconvened in March. This time they charged Goetz with four counts of attempted murder. The victims also instituted civil suits.

During the criminal trial, which began in December 1986, Goetz attempted to persuade jurors that he had acted in self-defense. To this end, the defense highlighted the fact that Goetz had been mugged in 1981 and the accused attacker was charged only with "mischievous mischief." Goetz was found not guilty on all criminal charges but was found guilty for violating one minor gun statute, for which he received a one-year sentence. However, in the civil trial, Goetz was ordered to pay a multimillion-dollar sum for paralyzing Darrell Cabey, although it is unlikely that Cabey will ever receive the money.

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