The trial of Bernhard Goetz is nearing conclusion 2 years after he shot four youths on a subway. But the troubling issues of vigilantism and the fear of crime in New York City remain. As defense attorney Barry I. Slotnick and prosecutor Gregory L. Waples summed up their cases during the last two days, two very different interpretations of the events in December 1984 were presented. Now the jury, after being charged by the judge, will make a decision that will inevitably stir more public debate, no matter how they rule.
Throughout the trial, Mr. Slotnick has hammered home the message that the shooting was in self-defense. He has portrayed Mr. Goetz as ``easy bait'' whose mind went on automatic pilot when the fear of being robbed and beaten welled up in him as he was ``surrounded'' by several black youths who asked for $5.
Mr. Waples calls the shooting the act of an individual who is ``the classic example of an unreasonable man,'' whose last two shots in particular were ``so sadistic and unnecessary,'' because as Mr. Goetz himself confessed, the last victim was not doing anything that posed any kind of deadly threat.
At the courtroom, some of the public attending the trial are here to watch the lawyers present their case; many more come as a show of support for either side. Some say crime is so high that people are driven to responses like Goetz's.
Others say the whole issue is tinged with racism, that the public condones the act because it was one white man against four black teens. For example, at a recent Manhattan dinner party with blacks, whites, and Asians, a vehement argument over the case lead to several shouting matches. On a sidewalk downtown as cameras wait for Goetz to leave the courtroom, bystanders loudly proclaim ``Guilty,'' or ``He did what he had to.''
Crucial to the case is the charge that Judge Crane gives to the jury, which sets the parameters of how it decides the case. He will explain the law that applies to the particular charges, which include four counts of second-degree attempted murder and four counts of first-degree assault, one count of first-degree reckless endangerment, and several criminal possession of weapons charges. Goetz faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Throughout the trial, conflicting testimony from witnesses to the shooting, plus differing interpretations of the medical evidence have made the prosecution's case tough.
Indeed, the summation by defense attorney Slotnick relied heavily on what he said was questionable testimony from the witnesses, including the taped confessions of Goetz himself, made in New Hampshire nine days after the shooting. He says the confession was a ``fantasy'' made by a ``traumatized, sick, psychologically upset'' person.
The prosecution came without a case, Slotnick said, and was finishing without a case. Bernie Goetz, he said, was a man who had been victimized by muggers before, and would not ``allow himself to be plundered one more time.''
The next day, Waples refused to apologize for using the confession.
``Why should [you] disbelieve the testimony of the one witness who should know exactly why and what happened?'' Waples asked. During his summation, he put emphasis on the shooting of Darrel Cabey, the youth who was left partly paralyzed and mentally impaired by the shooting. Even if the jury were to find that Goetz acted out of self-defense in the case of the other three individuals, Waples said, Goetz's own confession made it clear that he was seeking to murder and hurt a man who had not said a word to him or touched him. Waples also focused on Slotnick's constant description of the victims as thugs, one of whom was described as an admitted ``career criminal.''
The law applies equally to all, said Waples; the worst man has the same right to live as the best. The victims of the shooting are not on trial, he said. He accused Slotnick of exploiting the fear of crime when what should be considered is justice under the law.