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December 22, 1984, Benhard Goetz, Shoots 4 Young Men On NYC Subway Train - Today In Crime History

On this day, December 22, in the year 1984, Benhard Goetz shot four young black men on a New York City subway train.  Goetz would flee the scene until his surrender days afterward.  At trial he would be acquitted of attempted murder and be found guilty of a less serious charge related to his illegal possession of the firearm used.

In the early afternoon of December 22, 1984, four young men boarded a downtown express subway train in The Bronx and headed south toward lower Manhattan.  The four youths rode together in the rear portion of the seventh car of the train.  Two of the four had screwdrivers inside their jackets.

Bernhard Goetz boarded this subway train at 14th Street in Manhattan and sat down on a bench towards the rear section of the same car occupied by the four young men.  Goetz was carrying a concealed unlicensed pistol loaded with five rounds of ammunition in a waistband holster. The train left the 14th Street station and headed towards Chambers Street.

Two of the men approached Goetz, and one said "give me five dollars".  Goetz responded by standing up, pulling out his handgun and firing five shots in rapid succession.  One young man was hit in the chest.  Another was shot in the back.  One shot went through the third young man’s arm and into his left side.  One of the final two shots hit the fourth young man who was sitting, severing his spinal cord.

All but two of the other passengers fled the car when the shots were fired.  The conductor heard the gunfire and instructed the motorman to call for emergency assistance.  The conductor then went into the car where the shooting occurred and saw the wounded young people.  Goetz was sitting on a bench and told the conductor that the four young men had tried to rob him.

While the conductor was aiding the wounded young men, Goetz headed towards the front of the car.  The train stopped and Goetz went between two of the cars, jumped onto the tracks and fled.

On December 31, 1984, Goetz surrendered to law enforcement and identified himself as the gunman being sought for the subway shootings nine days earlier.  Later that day, after receiving Miranda warnings, Goetz made two tape recorded statements.  In the statements, Goetz admitted that he had been illegally carrying a handgun for three years.  He stated that he had first purchased the gun in 1981 after being injured in a mugging.  Goetz also revealed that twice between 1981 and 1984 he had successfully warded off assailants simply by displaying the pistol.

In January 1985 a grand jury considered the factual circumstances presented to them and Goetz was only indicted on firearm related charges.  In March 1985, prosecutors were permitted to present evidence to a second grand jury which then indicted Goetz on multiple charges of attempted murder, felony assault and illegal possession of firearm.

In November 1985 a column appeared in the New York Daily News containing an interview with one of the young men.  The columnist claimed that the young man had told him in the interview that the other three youths had all approached Goetz with the intention of robbing him.  The day after the column was published, a New York City police officer informed the prosecutor that he had been one of the first police officers to enter the subway car after the shootings, and that one of the young men had said to him "we were going to rob [Goetz]".

After years of pretrial litigation involving multiple appeals the Goetz case finally proceeded to trial in June 1987.  Goetz’s criminal defense attorneys argued that his actions fell within the New York self-defense statute.  Under that statute a person may use deadly force if one reasonably believes that a person is committing or attempting to commit a forcible felony such as robbery.  The jury was a mainly white Manhattan jury, six of whom had previously been crime victims.  The prosecutor's argument was that Goetz, carrying his pistol in a quick-draw holster, was looking for trouble and hoping for a confrontation.   Two of the four young men who had been shot did not testify at the trial.  Goetz took the stand and testified that his actions were taken in self-defense.

The jurors apparently concluded that when Goetz was approached by the youths, he was reasonable in believing it was not 'merely' a request for money.  Goetz was acquitted of all of the attempted murder and felony assault charges and convicted only of criminal possession of a weapon – carrying a loaded, unlicensed weapon in a public place.  Goetz’s ultimate sentence, after an appeal, was one year in jail with no probation.

Sources and more information:

People of New York v. Bernhard Goetz, 68 N.Y.2d 96 (1986)

'...You Have to Think in a Cold-blooded Way', New York Times, April 30, 1987

Goetz Is Cleared in Subway Attack; Gun Count Upheld; Acquittal Won in Shooting of 4 Youths - Prison Term Possible on Weapon Charge, New York Times, June 17, 1987

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