NEW YORK — New York's highest court Tuesday reinstated attempted murder and assault charges against subway gunman Bernhard H. Goetz and ordered him to stand trial for the shooting of four young men just before Christmas in 1984.
The seven-member Court of Appeals in Albany, in a unanimous ruling, overturned a lower court's dismissal of most charges against Goetz, saying that citizens cannot use deadly force anytime they feel threatened.
Goetz's topsy-turvy legal case has gone through two grand juries and several courts since he shot and seriously wounded four teen-agers after one asked him for $5 on a crowded subway train on Dec. 22, 1984.
In the furor that followed, the shy 39-year-old electronics equipment calibrator was both praised as a hero and criticized as a trigger-happy vigilante.
Goetz said he shot in self-defense because he was afraid the youths would mug him. All four had prior arrest records, but none had displayed any weapons.
Today, two of the four youths are in prison on unrelated charges, a third has been treated for drug addiction, and the fourth remains paralyzed and brain-damaged as a result of the shooting.
Their lawyers and prosecutors hailed the court's ruling, while Goetz's lawyers said they were disappointed but will not appeal further.
"I have no doubt Goetz will be exonerated and acquitted in a public forum," Barry Slotnick, Goetz's lawyer, said in an interview.
(Goetz told United Press International that he was disappointed by the decision, "but then I'm usually disappointed by New York government," he said. Goetz called the unfavorable court ruling "unexpected.")
Manhattan Dist. Atty. Robert Morgenthau said it was important for the case to go to trial "because of the widespread controversy" of the Goetz case.
"This decision means vigilante justice has no place in the streets of New York," said Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, lawyer for Darrell Cabey, the youth who was paralyzed.
The court ruled that state law does not "allow the perpetrator of a serious crime to go free simply because that person believed his actions were reasonable and necessary to prevent some perceived harm."
Chief Judge Sol Wachtler wrote that deadly force should only be used in cases in which a "reasonable person" might fear he or she is being threatened. He dismissed the more subjective standard applied by lower courts that could allow defendants to use deadly force in any case where they feel threatened.
"To completely exonerate such an individual, no matter how aberrational or bizarre his thought patterns, would allow citizens to set their own standards for the permissible use of force. It would also allow a legally competent defendant suffering from delusions to kill or perform acts of violence with impunity, contrary to fundamental principles of justice and criminal law."
Morgenthau said that the ruling clarified the law. "Any other result would permit citizens . . . to set their own standards of when and who to kill. That simply is unacceptable in a civilized society."
Trial is scheduled for Sept. 2. Slotnick said he would ask to postpone the trial until November because of a prior court commitment.
Slotnick said he will call the four men who accosted Goetz to testify at the trial.
"I'm going to show the jury the animalistic traits these thugs exhibited both before and after the incident," Slotnick said. "I want the jury to look in their faces."
Since the shooting, James Ramseur, 20, has been convicted of raping an 18-year-old Bronx woman, and sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. Barry Allen, 20, was convicted of second-degree robbery for stealing a neighbor's $150 necklace, and was sentenced to six months in prison.
Troy Canty, 21, entered a drug treatment program after pleading guilty to stealing $14 from a video game last March. The most seriously wounded, Cabey, 21, is confined to a wheelchair and lives at home with his mother.
The case has drawn international attention. While many hailed Goetz as a hero who was justified in fighting street crime, others said the shooting was racially motivated since Goetz is white and the youths are black.
The first grand jury to hear the case refused to indict Goetz for shooting the youths, charging him only with illegal possession of weapons. In March, 1985, a second grand jury charged Goetz with four counts each of attempted murder and assault, plus illegal possession of weapons.
Most Charges Dismissed
But state Supreme Court Judge Stephen Crane dismissed the attempted murder and assault charges last Jan. 16, saying prosecutors improperly instructed the grand jury about self-defense and that Canty and Ramseur may have lied to the grand jury. Three months later, the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court ruled 3 to 2 to uphold the dismissal.
But Wachtler said the lower courts imposed a "subjective standard" for using deadly force. He said state law clearly establishes an "objective standard" that permits use of force only when a person reasonably believes it is needed for self-defense. He also noted that Canty and Ramseur had not recanted their grand jury testimony.
"Goetz's own statements . . . provide ample basis for concluding that a trial of this matter is needed to determine whether Goetz could have reasonably believed that he was about to be robbed or seriously injured and whether it was reasonably necessary for him to shoot four youths to avert such a threat," Wachtler wrote.