Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Bernhard Goetz’s shooting of four black teenagers on a New York City subway train launched a heated public debate about vigilantism, self-defense, urban crime, and racism. After prolonged criminal and civil trials, Goetz, an electrician, was sentenced to jail for unlicensed gun possession and found liable for paralyzing one of the assailants.

Summary of Event

On December 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four young African American men on a subway car in New York City. This violent incident, lasting no more than six seconds, would have local and national repercussions, as it touched on issues that are central to urban life in the United States. [kw]Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths, Subway (Dec. 22, 1984) [kw]Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths, Subway Vigilante Bernhard (Dec. 22, 1984) Goetz, Bernhard People v. Goetz (1984) New York City;Goetz shootings "Subway Vigilante"[Subway Vigilante] New York City;"Subway Vigilante"[Subway Vigilante] Vigilantism Goetz, Bernhard People v. Goetz (1984) New York City;Goetz shootings "Subway Vigilante"[Subway Vigilante] New York City;"Subway Vigilante"[Subway Vigilante] Vigilantism [g]United States;Dec. 22, 1984: Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths[02120] [c]Violence;Dec. 22, 1984: Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths[02120] [c]Law and the courts;Dec. 22, 1984: Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths[02120] [c]Racism;Dec. 22, 1984: Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths[02120] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 22, 1984: Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz Shoots Four Black Youths[02120] Cabey, Darrell Slotnick, Barry Morgenthau, Robert M. Crane, Stephen G.

Bernhard Goetz, left.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Goetz seemed an unlikely person to have sparked this public debate. A bespectacled, slender, eccentric, Caucasian, thirty-seven-year-old loner, he operated his own electronics repair business out of his Manhattan apartment. However, he had been traumatized by a violent mugging on the subway in 1981 and by the subsequent denial of his request for a gun permit.

On Saturday, December 22, at 1 p.m., Goetz boarded a downtown subway car carrying in a waistband holder a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. He had purchased the gun legally in 1970 but did not have a New York license to carry the weapon. Four black youths—Troy Canty, Barry Allen, James Ramseur, and Darrell Cabey—already on the subway train, had been acting raucously before Goetz boarded. The four young men all were between eighteen and nineteen years old and all had criminal records. Two of them had screwdrivers in their pockets. Their behavior led passengers to move to the other end of the subway car. Two of the youths, Canty and Allen, approached Goetz after he boarded and demanded five dollars from him. A third youth, Ramseur, gestured toward a bulge in his pocket, suggesting that he had a weapon. Goetz pulled out his handgun and fired four shots.

Canty apparently was shot first; the bullet penetrated through his body. Allen was shot in the back; Ramseur was shot through his arm and chest; and another shot missed. Goetz then walked over to Cabey and fired into his side with his fifth and final shot, severing Cabey’s spinal cord. After telling a conductor that the youths had tried to rob him, Goetz leaped off the train onto the platform and disappeared into downtown Manhattan. He then rented a car and drove to Vermont, where he disposed of his gun.

Meanwhile, New York City was riveted by news of the shooting. Newspapers acclaimed the shooter as the “subway vigilante.” He was likened to actor Bronson, Charles Charles Bronson’s character, Paul Kersey, in the 1974 film Death Wish (film) Death Wish, in which Kersey avenged terrorized citizens of New York against hoodlums. Goetz, who surrendered to police in Concord, New Hampshire, on December 31, reinforced his vigilante image in his videotaped confessions to New Hampshire and New York police. In language freighted with images of Old West gunfights, Goetz recounted the incident. He talked of quick-draw holsters and laying down a “pattern of fire.” He explained that his violent reaction was triggered when he saw that Canty’s “eyes were shiny” and he “had a big smile on his face.”

Unlike the media, police and government officials were outraged that Goetz took the law into his own hands. U.S. president Ronald Reagan denounced vigilantism, and New York City mayor Koch, Edward I. Edward I. Koch described the shooting as “animal behavior.” The National Association National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the Advancement of Colored People likened Goetz to a Ku Klux Klan lyncher. New York district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau launched a criminal investigation. Cabey, paralyzed from the waist down from Goetz’s shot, was represented by famous civil rights lawyer William Kunstler. Cabey sued Goetz for fifty million dollars. (The other youths recovered from their wounds.)

On January 25, 1985, a grand jury indicted Goetz only on a charge of illegal gun possession. Morgenthau, criticized for the grand jury’s tame indictment, convened a second grand jury, appointing his leading assistant district attorney, Gregory Waples, to present the case and granting immunity to Canty and Ramseur for their testimony. On March 27, the second grand jury indicted Goetz on ten counts that included assault and attempted murder.

One year later, on January 21, 1986, Judge Stephen G. Crane dismissed nine of the counts on technical grounds relating to self-defense, dismissals that would assume great importance in the case. Waples had instructed the grand jury that Goetz would have been justified in acting in self-defense only if a reasonable person would have believed such actions necessary—a so-called objective standard. However, New York courts had evolved a “subjective belief” standard over the previous few years; that is, the defendant would be justified in using force if he or she believed such force necessary for his or her self-defense. Morgenthau appealed Crane’s self-defense ruling to New York’s appellate division, which affirmed Crane’s decision on April 17. The district attorney then appealed this decision to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. In a July 8 ruling, the appeals court reinstated all the counts against Goetz on the grounds that the decision to use self-defense must be objectively reasonable, although the court emphasized that a determination of reasonableness can be based on the defendant’s characteristics and circumstances, including any prior experience. The case of People v. Goetz was sent back to Crane for trial.

Goetz’s trial before Judge Crane began on December 12 under intense media scrutiny. Although Goetz asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, his attorney, Barry Slotnick, argued that Goetz shot the youths out of fear that they were about to assault him. Following the guidance from the court of appeals, Crane instructed the jury that Goetz was justified in defending himself if his experiences, including that he had been injured in a 1981 mugging, indicated to him that his actions were necessary. On June 16, 1987, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all the charges except criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree. On November 22, 1988, Goetz’s appeal of his conviction was denied and he was sentenced to one year in jail as well as community service and was fined $5,075. Goetz served eight months of his sentence.

The civil trial against Goetz had a different outcome. On April 23, 1996, a jury, which had been instructed to assess Goetz’s convictions on an objective standard, found that he acted recklessly and without justification when he shot Cabey. The jury awarded Cabey forty-three million dollars for his physical injuries and emotional distress. Goetz filed for bankruptcy soon after the case was decided.


The impact of the case of People v. Goetz was twofold, affecting both the theoretical interpretation of self-defense law and the day-to-day perceptions and lives of New York City residents. As to legal affairs, the microscopic attention paid to New York’s justification law during the lengthy litigation process against Goetz represented an elaborate explanation of what it means to employ violence in self-defense. The result was a hybrid standard combining objective and subjective factors. The New York courts ruled that the objective reasonableness of a defendant’s actions must be evaluated according to his or her background and subjective life experiences. This was a new and widely commented on standard in the centuries-old law of criminal self-defense.

As to life in the city, Goetz was one of the most important cases in the urban history of New York. Goetz injured four young men, paralyzing one of them. The case laid bare the racial divisions in the city and the legal system, which would only be exacerbated in the years that followed the shooting. The case also exposed the fear of crime that was overtaking cities in the United States and the desperation of urban residents for remedies—even violent ones—that would frustrate urban hoodlums.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the Goetz case was that it brought to light the petty lawlessness that public authorities had allowed to fester and grow in New York. At the time of the shooting, New York City had reached the highest crime rate in its history and was notorious throughout the country for muggings and other urban dangers. Over the next decades, city officials made a determined effort to crack down on petty offenses. It was perhaps no coincidence that crime rates would soon decline dramatically. Goetz, Bernhard People v. Goetz (1984) New York City;Goetz shootings "Subway Vigilante"[Subway Vigilante] New York City;"Subway Vigilante"[Subway Vigilante] Vigilantism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fletcher, George P. A Crime of Self-Defense: Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. A Columbia Law School professor focuses on legal questions of justification and self-defense raised during the Goetz trials and appeals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. Chapter four explains the Goetz shooting as the result of a decline in living standards and the rise of offenses that affected the quality of life in New York City.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Randall. Race, Crime, and the Law. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997. A Harvard Law School professor briefly analyzes the Goetz prosecution in terms of racial relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lesly, Mark, with Charles Shuttleworth. Subway Gunman: A Juror’s Account of the Bernhard Goetz Trial. Latham, N.Y.: British American, 1988. A juror’s perspective on the trial that also features trial documents, including the indictment, the prosecution’s opening and closing statements, and notes from juror deliberations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Markovitz, Jonathan. “Bernhard Goetz and the Politics of Fear.” In Violence and the Body: Race, Gender, and the State, edited by Arturo J. Aldama. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. This chapter on the Goetz shooting is part of a collection that examines the significance of “body politics” in a culture that fears violence. The Goetz case is considered in light of white panic and white rage, politicized responses that justify vigilantism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubin, Lillian B. Quiet Rage: Bernie Goetz in a Time of Madness. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. An account of the shooting that probes the psychological states of those involved in the incident, especially Goetz. Claims Goetz was emotionally unstable at the time of the shooting.

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