Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), confiding that he fears the New York subways even when accompanied by a bodyguard, said Thursday that he is willing to testify on behalf of Bernhard H. Goetz, the so-called "subway vigilante" whose shooting of four teen-agers has sparked a nationwide debate over the rights of crime victims.
Goetz "may or may not have gone too far," D'Amato declared at a Senate hearing on vigilante justice. But he said that he sympathized with Goetz because the subways are filled with thugs who cannot be stopped by a faltering criminal justice system.
"I'm afraid to get in that subway system, even when I'm with a bodyguard," D'Amato said. And, he noted, his bodyguard--who carries a can of Mace chemical repellent--also is afraid to ride New York's underground trains.
After D'Amato made his remarks, Goetz's lawyer, Joseph Kelner--a witness at the hearing--told the senator: "I think I'll subpoena you, sir. Would you be willing to testify?"
"I'd be glad to," D'Amato quickly responded.
Later, however, when reporters asked Kelner whether he would actually subpoena D'Amato, the attorney said: "I haven't considered it seriously, but the senator is a very fine and eloquent speaker and would be a good witness."
D'Amato and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the only two senators at the hearing by the advisory Congressional Crime Caucus, sharply criticized sentencing and parole procedures and the lack of prison space. At the same time, they contended that they had initiated many actions to solve some of those problems. Both men are running for reelection in 1986.
Specter was much more cautious than D'Amato in his appraisal of Goetz's shooting of the four youths, who allegedly surrounded Goetz and demanded $5 each. Three of them had screwdrivers. One of them is in a coma, paralyzed from the waist down.
Specter, a former district attorney in Philadelphia, noted that two of the youths had been shot in the back, and he expressed skepticism about whether Goetz could prove that he acted in self-defense, as he reportedly says he did.
On this point, Specter jousted with both Kelner and John F. Banzhaf III, a George Washington University law professor, who said: "If Mr. Goetz is guilty of anything, it is only of carrying an unlicensed gun."
Kelner said Goetz was not a vigilante but instead was "the personification, the symbol, of the finest we can produce in society." He called Goetz a "very reserved, thoughtful, considerate, compassionate . . . shy, intelligent, highly educated" man who "wouldn't harm a fly."
According to Kelner, Goetz "acted in a way that was justifiable . . . . He was confronted and surrounded by four persons, which is tantamount to a life-threatening situation."
Kelner also said both he and Goetz believe that the best solution to the crime problem would be a government-sponsored jobs program aimed at getting unemployed youths off the street.
Kelner, himself a mugging victim, is representing Goetz for free.
Specter, while acknowledging that there is "massive public approval" of Goetz's action, said he felt the responsibility to "put a yellow caution signal out on what may not be an act of self-defense. People have to be aware that you can't take the law into their own hands."
But Banzhaf sharply challenged the statement, saying that "when people are confronted with a dangerous situation, they don't have to sit there and take it. The act is one of citizen participation in the war against crime."