Goetz ordered to pay damages N.Y. jury awards $43 million to man paralyzed in shooting

April 24, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Nine years after a criminal jury accepted Bernhard Goetz's argument that he fired his famous shots in self-defense, a civil jury in the Bronx rejected that claim yesterday and ordered him to pay $43 million to the man whom he left paralyzed by gunfire on a downtown Manhattan subway train.

Adding a new chapter to a story that touched on many New Yorkers' darkest fears about crime, race and violence, the six-member jury unanimously found that the December 1984 shooting of Darrell Cabey, one of four young black men who Mr. Goetz said were trying to rob him, was unjustified.

The jurors awarded Mr. Cabey $18 million for past and future pain and suffering, and $25 million in punitive damages.

Mr. Cabey is unlikely to see anywhere near that amount, however, since Mr. Goetz, by his own account and that of his lawyer, has little money. In such cases it is common for the court to garnish 10 percent of the defendant's wages over 20 years.

Mr. Goetz, who has refused to comment for the past week, was not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced, nor was Mr. Cabey. But Mr. Goetz's lawyer, Darnay Hoffman, said after the verdict that it was not unexpected, and that he had no plans to appeal.

The verdict, delivered after about five hours of deliberations, was a reversal of the one in the criminal case against Mr. Goetz in 1987. Though he was convicted on a relatively minor weapons possession charge, he was acquitted on assault and attempted murder charges.

The question confronting the jury in both cases was essentially the same -- Did Mr. Goetz act reasonably? -- but this case unfolded in a very different time and place.

Fear of crime, clearly a factor in the first jury's decision and a sentiment that once led many New Yorkers to identify with Mr. Goetz, is perhaps less pervasive and oppressive today.

And while the first jury was largely white, the jury for the civil case consisted of four black and two Hispanic members.

Ronald Kuby, Mr. Cabey's lawyer, heavily emphasized the defendant's provocative statements on race, both in his questioning of Mr. Goetz and in his closing argument Monday.

Still, one juror interviewed after the verdict yesterday, Elba Torres, insisted that race was not a factor in the decision.

Testimony indicated that Mr. Cabey was not threatening the defendant when he was shot -- indeed, he may have been cowering in fear. Mr. Goetz admitted to thinking, or speaking, the words that have since become famous: "You don't look so bad -- here's another."

The thrust of Mr. Kuby's strategy was to portray Mr. Goetz's act 12 years ago as motivated by racism, and he skillfully bolstered his case by using the defendant's own words: his belief that the shooting was a contribution to society, that Mr. Cabey's mother should have had an abortion, that Mr. Cabey and the other youths represented society's failures.

That strategy was a natural one for Mr. Kuby, a law partner of the late William Kunstler, the longtime champion of liberal and radical causes.

Yesterday's verdict represented the end of a long road for Mr. Kuby, who with Mr. Kunstler filed the lawsuit against Mr. Goetz in 1985.

The lawyer maintained his racial interpretation of the case to the end, telling reporters afterward that the verdict "sends a very clear message to all the bigots out there who think black lives are worthless. Those lives are worth a lot."

The contrast between Mr. Kuby and Mr. Hoffman could not have been greater. Mr. Hoffman, a former television producer who is married to the so-called Mayflower Madam, Sidney Biddle Barrows, was trying only his second case. He was always quick with a comment for reporters, but less quick on his feet in the courtroom.

Monday, in his closing argument, he shifted tactics somewhat, apologizing to the jury for some of his client's more outrageous statements, but insisting that Mr. Goetz was in legitimate fear of being robbed.

After the verdict yesterday, Mr. Hoffman continued to apologize. "Bernie has always been his own worst enemy in respect to the truth," Mr. Hoffman said.

From the beginning, the trial was not primarily about money, since even Mr. Kuby conceded that Mr. Goetz did not have much. Mr. Kuby said Mr. Goetz may have an inheritance of about $100,000, a sum Mr. Hoffman refused to confirm.

But Mr. Hoffman suggested that the case may finally be ending. "This has to be over for Darrell Cabey, for Bernie Goetz and for the city of New York," he said.

So the trial will likely have more of a symbolic import than a practical one, an outcome Mr. Kuby himself alluded to in his opening statement. Mr. Goetz chose to embroider on that theme when he was called by Mr. Kuby as a witness, calmly offering his views on race and crime.

Mr. Kuby promised on the very first day of the trial that the proceedings would be dominated by these views, and he turned out to be right.

Pub Date: 4/24/96

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