Goetz Sentenced to Year in Jail, Tells Court Society Needs Protection From Criminals

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Times Staff Writer

Guards led subway gunman Bernhard H. Goetz from court Friday to begin serving a one-year jail sentence for carrying an illegal handgun, ending a bitter and controversial case that touched a raw national nerve over urban crime.

During his dramatic court appearance, Goetz, who shot four young men he said were threatening to attack him on a subway more than four years ago, argued with the prosecution’s contention that society needed to be protected from him.

“I do feel this case is really more about the deterioration of society than it is about me,” Goetz told acting Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Crane before the judge pronounced sentence. “Society needs to be protected from criminals.”


Goetz started to sit down, but Crane asked if he had anything to add. “One of the fellows I shot was once arrested for robbing someone with a shotgun. He posted $200 and was back on the street. He never showed up (in court). Nobody bothered to arrest him,” Goetz said.

Moments earlier in the small, crowded eighth-floor courtroom, prosecutor Gregory Waples had asked that Goetz receive a three-year prison sentence. “The defendant is a potentially dangerous person to himself and to members of New York society,” Waples charged. It was that statement that prodded the slim defendant, dressed in his usual faded dungarees and sport shirt open at the collar, to reply.

In imposing a $5,000 fine and the one-year sentence at New York City’s Rikers Island jail, where Goetz will be kept under special protection, Crane stressed that, “On re-sentence, the court is still concerned about general deterrence . . . . It would not be unduly harsh to sentence Mr. Goetz to prison.”

Goetz could be eligible for release in 51 days, if the nine days he served in jail when he was arrested are considered.

Goetz was acquitted in 1987 of attempted murder but was found guilty of illegal gun possession. He originally was sentenced last year by Crane to six months in jail and fined $5,000. But an appeals court overturned that penalty because, under the law, the minimum sentence for illegal gun possession is a year in jail, and the maximum is seven years.

Goetz shot the four black teen-agers, who he charged were about to rob him, on Dec. 22, 1984. Afterward, he fled to New Hampshire for several days before surrendering and making a videotaped confession to prosecutors. In the confession, he contended that the youths menaced him by surrounding him on the train before asking him for $5. Three of the teen-agers escaped permanent injury in the shooting. The fourth, Darrell Cabey, 22, is now paralyzed from the waist down.


One of the youths, James Ramseur, who testified for the prosecution, is serving time in prison for the rape of an 18-year-old woman.

Caused Widespread Debate

The case soon sparked national and international debate over charges of self-defense, vigilantism and racism.

To his supporters, Goetz, 41, symbolized the ordinary citizen standing up for his rights; his detractors viewed the gangly electronics technician’s actions as a prime example of racially motivated violence. As national attention focused on the case, Goetz T-shirts were sold in New York. Slogans supporting his action appeared on billboards and walls. The comic strip “Doonesbury” satirized the intense New York tabloid coverage of the case.

During his trial, the prosecution charged that Goetz was a troubled man with a history of gun possession--a characterization Waples repeated Friday.

“I submit there are no changed circumstances,” the assistant district attorney said. “ . . . (Goetz) expressed the opinion Judge Crane should have sentenced him to a testimonial dinner. The defendant has no insight into the crime committed.”

“It is an interesting day today, judge, Friday the 13th,” Barry Slotnick, Goetz’s lawyer told Crane, “somewhat symbolic.”


“It is a symbol the jury system does work.”

In an emotional appeal before sentencing, Slotnick said: “When a citizen’s life is permeated by fear, justice must take recognizance of reality.

“Bernie Goetz was tried by a jury. . . . This jury found he made a sound decision when he pulled out his gun and fired,” the lawyer said, stressing that Goetz had been mugged once before the incident on the subway occurred.

Slotnick put his hand on the shoulder of his client, describing Goetz as “this tall, skinny man.”

“This is the perfect profile of a victim in New York,” the lawyer charged.

Slotnick told the judge that Goetz had “lost his anonymity, lost his business, lost his money, lost everything he had . . . . For four years, he has been under supervision of this court on bail. He has led an exemplary life.”

” . . . How much flesh can one judicial system eat out of this man’s body, judge?” Slotnick asked passionately. “Don’t send him to jail. Let him go home. I ask you for mercy, decency, humane treatment, most of all what’s appropriate--no jail for Bernhard Goetz.”

In deciding that a jail sentence was appropriate, Crane noted that the one-year sentence he imposed carries the condition of a 60-day conditional release in a gun case, if parole authorities agree.


The judge said Goetz’s lack of remorse gave him concern that Goetz might repeat his behavior in using a firearm.

Goetz’s lawyers, challenging his conviction, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. If the court decides to hear the case, the lawyers said they would request that the jail sentence be interrupted.