NEW YORK — Subway gunman Bernhard H. Goetz was acquitted of all major charges because the jury believed he faced a "deadly threat" from the four youths he shot and because the jury disregarded Goetz's own confession or other key prosecution witnesses, according to jurors.
None of the 12 jurors were ever convinced that Goetz was guilty of a serious crime, and none ever voted to convict him of attempted murder or assault during balloting in 30 hours of deliberations, several jurors said Tuesday night and Wednesday.
"Nobody thought he was guilty from the beginning," said juror Carolyn Perlmuth, 31, a financial journalist.
Goetz, a 39-year-old electronics engineer, was convicted Tuesday of only one count of illegal possession of a handgun. Goetz used the .38-caliber pistol to shoot four black youths on a Manhattan subway on Dec. 22, 1984, after one of the group asked him for $5.
Jurors said they discounted Goetz's own chilling confession of the shooting, particularly his emotional account of how he walked over to Darrell Cabey on a subway seat and fired the fifth and final bullet into the teen-ager, saying: "You seem to be all right, here's another." Cabey remains partially paralyzed and brain damaged from the shooting.
"We couldn't accept what we saw on that videotape," said juror Catherine Brody, 59, an archivist at New York City Technical College. "The man was near hysteria."
Juror Mark Lesly, 28, said Goetz appeared agitated and confused because he had been "living and re-living a nightmare" in the nine days before he turned himself in to police in Concord, N.H., and gave his confessions. Lesly said the jury found no proof that Cabey was seated when he was shot.
"His own confusion, coupled with his feelings of guilt, might have forced him to make statements that were not accurate," said Lesly, a computer programmer and karate teacher.
Jurors said the defense arguments were not as important to them during the seven-week trial as understanding and sympathy for the fear Goetz felt when he believed he was going to be robbed and beaten.
'I Ride the Trains'
"Mr. Goetz was not a vigilante, he was a sad, frightened man." said juror Michael Axelrod, 34, a telephone company employee. "I ride the trains. I know what it is in New York."
Axelrod said jurors rejected prosecutor Gregory L. Waples' argument that Goetz was seeking vengeance for two previous muggings. Axelrod said Goetz was "trapped on the train" and fired in self defense.
"He wasn't hunting people," Axelrod said. "He felt cornered and he felt no one was going to help him."
The jurors said they quickly decided that Goetz was guilty of illegal possession of the handgun, the first of 13 charges in the indictment. The crime carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison, but Goetz's lawyers said that, as a first offender, he is unlikely to be sent to prison.
Juror Diana Serpe, 33, an airline sales agent, said deliberations took so long "because we were extremely careful" and conducted 35 votes on the charges. She said there were "no holdouts, only people who were indecisive."
"I and my fellow jurors agonized over this case for many weary hours," said juror D. Wirth Jackson, 71, a retired civil engineer, in a brief statement read by his wife. He said the case had disrupted his life for five months.
Jurors insisted that the verdict was not meant to condone vigilante violence in a city beset by racial tensions and rising crime.
No License to Shoot
"People may think this gives license to go out and shoot black people, but the fact is that those four people were a deadly threat to Goetz--black, white or whatever," Lesly said.
But several black leaders raised the possibility that Goetz's acquittal would increase tensions and lead to a summer of demonstrations in New York City.
"It's a dangerous precedent," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, a vocal black activist and president of the National Youth Movement in New York. "It's telling people you can bear arms and can use deadly force. That could send a false signal to the streets."
Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins said he was frightened by the prospect of "a city half-filled with nervous New Yorkers carrying guns and using them at the slightest provocation, and the other half living in fear of being the next victim."
Goetz remained secluded Wednesday from dozens of reporters, photographers and TV crews who waited outside his yellow brick apartment building in Manhattan for the second day. Calls to his apartment were intercepted by an answering machine tape of his high-pitched voice.
"Hello, this is Bernie," the tape says. "Please leave a message after the beep." But Goetz did not return reporters' calls.