Read and discuss the case of People v. Goetz

Criminal Law

Section 200/07

Read and discuss the case of People v. Goetz.

Answer the following questions: 

Did he shoot in self-defense? 

Do you agree with the court’s decision?

What Section of Article 35 of your New York State Penal Law should apply to this case?

Does self-defense require a subjective belief or an objective belief?

Bernard Goetz indicted for criminal possession of a weapon, attempted murder and assault and reckless endangerment.  The Supreme Court dismissed the indictment and the People appealed.  The appellate division affirmed and the People appealed.  The Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated all of the dismissed counts to the indictment.


Troy Canty and Darrell Cabey, James Ramseur and Barry Allen boarded the subway that Goetz was riding.

Two of the four defendants had screwdrivers inside their coats.  They used their screwdrivers to break into coin boxes of video machines.  They were on the express train in the Bronx and were going to Manhattan.

Goetz got on at 14th Street.  Goetz sat down.  Goetz was carrying an unlicensed .38 gun.  It was loaded.

One of the defendants Canty approached Goetz, possibly with Allen beside him, and stated “give me five dollars.”  No one displayed a weapon.  Goetz stood up pulled out his handgun and fired 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 was standing in the corner of the car, but missed, deflecting instead off a wall of the conductor’s cab.  After Goetz looked around he fired another shot at Cabey who was sitting down.  The bullet entered the rear of Cabey’s side and severed his spinal cord.

Goetz told the conductor that the boys had tried to rob him.

Goetz went between the cars and jumped onto the tracks and fled.

Goetz eventually surrendered to the police.

He was given Miranda and gave two lengthy tape- recorded statements.

He admitted to illegally carrying the gun for 3 years.  He purchased the gun in 1981 after he had been injured in a mugging.  Goetz also revealed that 2x between 1981 and 1984 he had successfully waded off assailants simply by displaying his gun.

He stated his first contact with the young men was when one of them said “How are you”? He replied “Fine.”  He stated that shortly thereafter Canty followed by one of the other youths, walked over to the defendant and stood to his left, while the other 2 youths remained to his right, in the corner of the subway car.  Canty then said “give me five dollars.”  Goetz stated that he wanted to “play with me.”  Although he was certain that none of the youths had a gun, he had a fear based on prior experiences, of being “maimed.”

Goetz then fired.  His stated intention was to murder, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible.  When Canty again requested money, Goetz stood up, drew his weapon and began firing, aiming for the center of the body of each of the four.  Goetz recalled that the first 2 he shot “tried to run through the crowed but they had nowhere to run.  Goetz then turned to his right to “go after the other two.”  One of these two “tried to run through the wall of the train, but…he had nowhere to go.”  The other youth (Cabey) “tried pretending that he wasn’t with (the others) by standing still, holding on to one of the subway hand straps, and not looking at Goetz.  Goetz nonetheless fired his fourth shot at him.  He then ran back to the first 2 youths to make sure they had been “taken care of.”  Seeing that they had been taken care of, he checked the other two.

As Goetz looked at the other two, he stated “you seem to be alright” and he shot them. He also said if he had more bullets he would have shot them again and again.

The case was presented to the Grand Jury.  The grand jury only brought an indictment for two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree.  It dismissed the attempted murder and other charges.

Several weeks later, the prosecution said it had additional evidence available and moved for an order to resubmit the case to the grand jury containing the 4 charges of attempted murder, assault and reckless endangerment.

Goetz moved to dismiss the charges in the second indictment alleging among other things that the evidence before the second grand jury was not legally sufficient to establish the offenses charged and that the prosecutor’s instructions to the grand jury on the defense of justification were erroneous and prejudicial to the defendant so as to render its proceedings defective.

There was an interview, meanwhile, while the motion to dismiss was pending – the interview was with Darrell Cabey with a New York Daily News reporter.  He said that the other three youths had all approached Goetz with the intention of robbing him.

The court stated that the prosecution in a supplemental charge elaborating upon the justification defense, had erroneously introduced an objective element into this defense by instructing the grand jurors to consider whether Goetz conduct was that of a “reasonable man in Goetz’s situation.”

The court concluded that the statutory test for whether the use of deadly force is justified to protect a person should be wholly subjective, focusing entirely on the defendant’s state of mind when he used such force.  It concluded that dismissal was required for this error because the justification issue was at the heart of the case.

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