New York Court of Appeals (1986)
Often Ignored in Class Discussion:
Race of the Jury Pool
Self Defense as defined by Dominant Group’s Perspective
The Flawed Use of Crime Statistics to try to paint black people as more dangerous
Parallel to Police Brutality
Connections Between Poverty And Crime
This is the one case in the first-year Criminal Law course in which professors are more likely than not to bring out the racial context of the case. If the professor does not mention it, then they probably should not be teaching criminal law. That is because despite the opinion’s appearance of neutrality, Goetz came at a moment of extreme political polarization and racial tension in New York City. This opinion was pretty clearly written in such a way to obscure the politics involved at the time. In truth, the most pertinent facts of the case are not disputed.
Of the four black teenagers, one asked Goetz to “give me five dollars.” In response, Goetz stood up, pulled out his gun and fired four shots in rapid succession. There was no imminent threat. In fact, it might be fair to say that there was no proven threat at all; they were not in possession of a deadly weapon. In fact, Goetz even admitted that he did not believe that the black teens would cause him harm. In the context of the first-year curriculum, this case serves to teach a lesson about the reasonable person standard in the case of self-defense. In this case, Goetz’s defense rests on his contention that it was reasonable for him to exercise deadly force in order to prevent a robbery. But if his shooting were merely about preventing a robbery, then why did he continue to shoot long after the situation had been “handled” and admit a malicious intent when he expressed to the police “I said [to one of the Black teenagers] [y]ou seem to be all right, here’s another,” before firing the shot that would end up severely damaging one of the Black teenager’s spinal cord. In what universe could this be seen as reasonable? Whose universe is it anyway?
In the aftermath of the case, the jury failed to convict Goetz for any of the charges besides possession of an illegal firearm. Shocker. Note that the jury pool consisted of ten white jurors and two black ones. This majority white jury decided Goetz’s actions were reasonable. How might racial bias figure into the reasonable person standard? If black and white people view reasonableness differently and white people continue to be overrepresented in the demographics of the jury pool, then what does that say about the reasonable person standard in practice?
Of course, there is the matter of crime statistics, which some whites calculate, and then use to claim that it is perfectly reasonable to murder Black men and women without cause. The thought is this: the more likely Blacks are to commit crime, the more reasonable it is to fear and kill them with impunity. One wonders whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty. Nevertheless, these racial statisticians conveniently leave out the fact that most crime occurs intraracially and is highly correlated to socioeconomic status, which means those numbers tend to only carry significant meaning for poor Blacks who live in impoverished areas.
But what of the fact that blacks disproportionately represent impoverished communities in urban-metro areas across the country? Does the government bear some responsibility for creating the conditions in which groups feel the need to commit crime in order to survive? Why is this left out of the ongoing discourse in Criminal Law and to whose advantage is it to not equalize distribution of resources in society?
If the jury pool were all black, do you think the outcome of this case would have been the same? Let’s assume the racial composition of the jury remains the same but the victims in question are white, same result? If we continue with the last stipulation but further suppose that Goetz is a black man, how might that have affected the outcome of the case? Consider the parallels between Goetz’ claim of self-defense and the claims offered by polices officers in cases of police brutality and the murder of unarmed black men. Do you see the similarities in the rationales given by these police officers? Consider the racial makeup of police departments in comparison to the communities they swear to serve and protect.