Common-sense fairness decides Goetz's fate

April 26, 1996|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON -- Beware of all the "deep" explanations why a New York jury has said that "subway vigilante" Bernhard Goetz owes $43 million to Darrell Cabey, a black youth left paralyzed by Mr. Goetz's 1984 gun blasts.

There is stark contrast between the decision of a Bronx jury of four blacks and two Hispanics and that of the mostly white jury of nine years ago, which found Mr. Goetz innocent of attempted murder and assault, sending him to jail for 8 1/2 months.

Some say that this new verdict, on top of the O.J. Simpson trial, proves that our jury system has gone to hell -- that race dominates a jury now more than evidence.

Others say Tuesday's verdict proves Americans are not as wound up about crime as in 1987; therefore they are less tolerant of vigilantism of the sort Mr. Goetz manifested in 1984.

Betrayed by his own words

Let's get real. There is just one profound difference between the Goetz criminal trial of 1987 and the civil trial of 1996: Mr. Goetz did not testify nine years ago, so a great criminal trial lawyer, Barry Slotnick, could portray him as a victim of rampant subway crime who was scared by four black thugs trying to rob him.

This time, Mr. Goetz did testify -- in words and ways that made him look like a cocky, still-dangerous, out-of-control bigot.

Mr. Goetz's own lawyer, Darnay Hoffman, said publicly after the trial, "Bernie has always been his own worst enemy in respect to the truth."

On the stand, before six minority jurors, Mr. Goetz said his theory of how to clean up a neighborhood was to "get rid of all the niggers and spics."

He said he thought he was doing a public service in shooting four blacks who had asked him for $5. He added that he felt society would have been better off if Mr. Cabey's mother "had had an abortion."

I cannot imagine an American jury of any racial makeup not wanting to punish the maker of such statements and admissions.

The convicting moment came, some jurors said, when Mr. Goetz admitted in cold arrogance that after Mr. Cabey lay helpless on the floor of the subway car, he stood over Mr. Cabey and said tauntingly, "You don't look so bad. Here's another," as he pumped another bullet into the paralyzed-for-life youngster.

Mr. Goetz "went too far," said juror Ronald Corley.

This jury saw clearly what the 1987 jury got no chance to see: That Mr. Goetz is a violent bigot, and a nut to boot.

So it handed down a reasonable requirement that Mr. Goetz pay Mr. Cabey $18 million in compensatory and $25 million in punitive damages, which in real-world terms means that Mr. Cabey "may" get 10 percent of Mr. Goetz's meager earnings for the next 20 years.

A solid jury system

The American jury system is just as solid now as it was before this and the Simpson trial. We could not before, and cannot now, assume that all jury decisions in celebrated cases will rise or fall on the issue of race.

Crime is as much a worry, and vigilantism just as stupid a cure, as was the case a decade ago.

The Bronx jury was not, as some suggest, saying that the four blacks shot by Mr. Goetz were "nice guys." They were not and are not now. It was saying that even objectionable guys of likely criminal intent have some protection against race-crazy, armed vigilantes. That was an established American ideal -- and law -- even when lynchings were commonplace.

I hear a lot of moaning and agonizing about how we must "breathe life back into our criminal justice system."

Nothing more is needed than a little common-sense fairness, which that Goetz Bronx jury has delivered.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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