'Subway Vigilante's' Story for the Small Screen

The trial of Bernhard Goetz continues--on a video of confession highlights, in a PBS "courtroom drama" and possibly as a TV movie, if Goetz's lawyers decide to peddle their client's dramatic rights.

The hourlong videocassette, "The Confessions of Bernhard Goetz," arrived at video stores around the country at $39.95 just before Thanksgiving to kick off the Christmas retail season--backed in New York City by 1,000 color promotional posters plastered throughout the subway system.

The video was edited from Goetz's infamous two-hour taped confession that was exhibited as evidence during his trial for shooting four black youths.

Part of the public domain, the taped confession was considered by various observers as the most telling indictment or vindication of the so-called "subway vigilante," who did not take the stand during his trial.

Goetz's lawyers say their client is "distressed" by the release of the video. But one of them, Mark Baker, also acknowledges that he and his partner, Barry Slotnick, have retained a theatrical agent to explore alleged offers for the rights of Goetz's own story for television--"whatever appears to be in his best interest," said Baker, who would not give specifics about the offers.

However, public TV has the edge on any commercial attempts to film the Goetz story. PBS has used the public trial transcripts, including the Goetz confession, for a three-hour drama, "The Trial of Bernhard Goetz." The re-enacted courtroom drama recently completed a month's production in a Boston studio, and is scheduled for broadcast as part of the "American Playhouse" series in mid-February. That's about the time, Baker says, that his client's appeal of a handgun possession conviction is expected to come before a New York appellate court.

"It's an exercise in futility," said Baker of the PBS program, which is portraying his partner, Slotnick, but not Baker. "They may claim objectivity," he continued, referring to the fact that the actual court transcripts make up the entire teleplay, "but there is no way they can capture what really happened, and probably what is selected will reflect any biases the producers may have."

The Manhattan District Attorney's office, which represented the four youths in the case, one of whom remains permanently crippled by a bullet fired by Goetz, said through a representative that there was "no comment" on the PBS project.

The actual trial ended here in June. Goetz was acquitted of all charges, including attempted murder, stemming from the December, 1984, shooting on a Manhattan subway train, except for the charge of illegally possessing a handgun. For this, Goetz was sentenced in October to six months imprisonment, which is being appealed.

The Goetz case captured national attention and heated debate about urban violence. It cast Goetz, portraying himself as an outraged citizen who acted to protect himself against what he believed to be an impending mugging, in roles that ranged from folk hero to vigilante. In the end, it left observers emotionally and politically polarized, and left many racial wounds.

Now, with the commercial and public broadcasting ventures, the wounds are being reopened, if ever they were closed.

"The fact is, I don't have a personal point of view, and this makes it easier for me, as a journalist, to be completely fair and even-handed in the presentation of this material," said Harry Moses, a former "60 Minutes" reporter/producer who said he "woke up one morning" with the idea to fashion the court transcripts into a TV drama, and who is directing as well as producing the PBS project.

Moses, a slightly built, humorless, somewhat strident man, was standing on a surreal courtroom set built at Boston's public station WGBH by veteran Broadway designer David Jenkins. Surrounding the set were two giant, life-like backdrops: one, depicting New York slum tenements, apparently represented the impoverished background of the four youths who allegedly confronted and threatened Goetz in the subway train three years ago this month; another, an enlarged photo of a subway train that seemed to be speeding threateningly down the tracks toward the courtroom.

Moses, who left his 14-year-long position with "60 Minutes" in January, recalled attending Goetz's seven-week-long trial on a daily basis and later culling a 180-page teleplay from over 4,500 pages of trial transcripts--at a cost of $3 per page.

He said he initially approached "American Playhouse" rather than commercial networks because "(the people at) public television are intelligent, trusting, gentlemanly . . . and they leave you alone. I also needed a quick 'yes' and the money to purchase the transcripts, and the networks do take time."

In spite of his absorption in the volatile trial, Moses repeatedly claimed that he remains "ambivalent" about Goetz's actions, as well as the judicial outcome. "Should people shoot kids? No. . . . Can I understand what brought (Goetz) to pull the trigger? Yes," said Moses, a native New Yorker who said he has never been mugged but rides the subway daily "with eyes in the back of my head." It was his most direct expression of a point of view about the material.

How did Moses go about distilling the TV drama down from the seven-week trial, fairly and evenhandedly?

"I made the selection (of material) on the basis of what witnesses were really relevant to the (trial's) outcome, and what were the most obviously dramatic occurances." Noting that plans call for a disclaimer at the start of the PBS drama stating that "everything you will see has been edited," Moses said, "I haven't consciously edited anything out of context."

Moses said that a team of lawyers for "American Playhouse" scrutinized the script "to be sure we are on firm legal ground, and also to additional eyes to see that we're playing fairly."

However, on emotional and political grounds, the evidence around the Boston set was that the TV project, like the actual trial, was maintaining an imbalance. Among the cast of generally unknown actors, as well as among the production crew drawn from New York, Los Angeles and Boston, the views expressed were poles apart. Many of those interviewed said that working on the project had swayed them from their initial view of Goetz and his actions.

"As an actor, my job is to side with him," said Peter Crombie, the Goetz look-alike cast in the title role. "As an individual, the more I know about him, the more I am ambivalent (about his actions)," the New York actor said.

The Goetz "confession tape" was readily available on the set and was said by nearly everyone to be the swaying factor, either for or against Goetz. A histrionic, unwieldy, often-incoherent monologue by Goetz, taped soon after he turned himself in to authorities in 1984, the two-hour tape was rarely shown in its entirety as part of the nationally televised coverage of the Goetz case.

Less than a half hour has been selected for re-enactment by Crombie in the PBS production, but a sampling of the rough footage revealed it to show the full range of the impact of the two-hour version, including Goetz's startling admission of wanting "to kill" the youths on the subway.

"The videotape tells you everything you want to know about Bernie Goetz," said Moses. Yet many on the production said Goetz's emotional state led them to feel more sympathetic toward him. Most said that this, in addition to the "brutish" ways in which the youths were described in the teleplay, swayed them in Goetz's direction.

Noting that his "anti-Goetz" view has been softened by working as an editor on the PBS project, Bill Anderson of Boston said, "I still think he's a madman, but I feel more sympathetic toward him."

"I think he's a troubled man, and I don't think his actions were justified, but I now see that he thought he was in danger and justified," said Valerie Shaer, an assistant director from New York.

"My greatest fear is that people will come away (from the TV production) thinking (Goetz) is a nice guy, and glad that he shot those guys," said Larry B. Scott, the L.A.-based actor cast in the role of one of Goetz's young victims, James Ramseur. Ramseur, one of the most controversial characters in the real-life drama because of his past criminal record and his rebelliousness in the courtroom, was one of two youths to testify under immunity and to be portrayed in the TV re-enactment.

Scott was the only actor interviewed who said he attempted, unsuccessfully, to meet his character, who is imprisoned. He was also the only one on the Boston set to express sympathy for the four youths. Noting that Ramseur "still has one of Goetz's bullets implanted in his chest," Scott said, "I don't think justice was served up the way it should have been, and I find it scary to think that this (project) will make people more sympathetic to Goetz.

"I would hope we will provoke thought, and make everyone more sensitive to what happened, rather than to polarize more, between white and black," said Scott, who seemed very sensitive to the focus on Ramseur's past record in the portions of the Goetz trial selected for the PBS project.

"This is a piece of theater, in that the trial has been narrowed down, built on a set, and so on . . . but that's poetic license," said Crombie. "It's our job to portray people as accurately as possible, yet as artists we're lending out own interpretation.

"The truth of that 40-minute episode on a subway train lies submerged somewhere between the actual trial and the scrutiny of it by the press and the public, and the dramatization of the trial."

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