FOR all the publicity the case of Bernhard Goetz, the ``subway vigilante,'' has received, it remains but a single case within the justice system. Yet his acquittal - on all counts but one - has occasioned such sighs of relief from some quarters, and such charges of racism and other wrongs from others, as to remind us that unresolved issues remain.
It is difficult to comment on the verdict in a criminal trial in quite the way these and other such columns comment on decisions by, say, the United States Supreme Court. The entire criminal-justice system is based on the premise that truth will emerge from witnesses' sworn testimony and the jurors' deliberation. If, as in the Goetz trial, the prosecution fails to make its case ``beyond a reasonable doubt,'' then for the purposes of the criminal-justice system, the ``truth'' is that the defendant did not commit the crime.
The verdict in this case of the man who shot four teen-agers in a subway car because he thought they were going to rob him gives some important signals:
Vigilantism is not going to be ignored. The New York authorities did press charges in the case and bring it to trial.
Laws against possession of an unlicensed handgun - the one charge on which Mr. Goetz was convicted - are going to be enforced in New York.
But the Goetz case is also a reminder that crime and the fear of crime remain a serious concern for New Yorkers and for Americans across the country. Goetz had bought a gun for self-defense after being mugged; would he have done so if he had had more confidence in the mechanisms people should be able to rely on to keep their cities safe?
And safety in the cities is not just a matter of high police visibility and tough courts and prosecutors, but basic civic-mindedness. ``We felt Mr. Goetz had no chance to retreat...,'' one of the jurors said afterward. ``He couldn't depend ... on anybody else on that train helping him.''
Unfortunately the issue of race further clouds the issue. Goetz is white; the four he shot were black. This has given rise to unhelpful speculation whether the case would have moved faster had the shooting victims been white, whether a not-guilty verdict would have been reached had the accused been black, and so on. But again, all we have to go on is the jury verdict. It must stand independent of racial considerations. The challenge of including members of racial minorities fully in American life is serious; it cannot be solved by just tinkering with law enforcement mechanisms.
``This has been the most difficult case of our time,'' Judge Stephen G. Crane told the jurors after their verdict had been delivered. ``There will be criticism and there will be support. But whatever is thought about your verdict, you have the confidence of the court.''
And in this case, that is about all that could be asked.