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'Subway Vigilante's' Story for the Small Screen

December 13, 1987|CLARKE TAYLOR

BOSTON — 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."

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