It took nine days for Bernhard Goetz, then a 37-year-old electronics specialist, to turn himself in after he shot and injured four young Black men on Dec. 22, 1984, in a New York City subway car.
Nearly 40 years later, prominent voices have drawn parallels between Goetz, who media at the time deemed the “Subway Vigilante,” and Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who was filmed this month placing Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old Black man, in a fatal chokehold on a New York City subway car.
Police initially arrested Penny and released him without charges, sparking protests and outrage from public officials after the video went viral. According to police, witnesses described Neely, who was experiencing homelessness, as acting in a “hostile and erratic manner.” Penny was arraigned on a second-degree manslaughter charge and released on bond Friday.
For almost two weeks, Neely’s family and lawmakers called for prosecutors to bring charges. Among them, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who drew comparisons between Penny and Goetz. “I fought the [Bernhard] Goetz case, and we cannot end up back to a place where vigilantism is tolerable,” Sharpton said in a statement two days after the fatal chokehold. “It wasn’t acceptable then, and it cannot be acceptable now.”
Penny’s and Goetz’s cases both raise questions of racism, subway safety, dangers of vigilantism and political polarization. To his supporters, Goetz represented those New Yorkers exasperated with the high crime rates of the 1980s. Though the rate of violence in New York has recently come under fire from Republicans, the current level of crime in the city is more comparable to a decade ago — when New York was celebrated as the country’s safest big city, according to the Associated Press.
Both cases also took place aboard the subway, a confined place used by people from all walks of life in New York City.
While Goetz, now 75, fled after the 1984 shootings, Penny was immediately questioned by police and released without charges. Penny later surrendered to police at the request of the Manhattan district attorney’s office following public outcry, Thomas A. Kenniff, one of Penny’s attorneys, said Friday. Goetz had been sought for questioning from day one.
The 1984 incident aboard the 2 train began when Troy Canty, one of the four young Black men, asked Goetz how he was doing. Canty then walked up to Goetz and said “give me five dollars,” according to appeals court records.
Goetz told authorities that he believed Canty’s smile indicated the group of young men wanted to “play with me,” though none of them displayed a weapon. Two of the four young men carried screwdrivers inside their coats, which they said were to be used to break into the coin boxes of video machines.
That’s when Goetz drew his unlicensed handgun and shot Canty, Barry Allen, Darrell Cabey, all 19, and James Ramseur, 18. The train swiftly came to a halt after the conductor, prompted by the gunshots, slammed the emergency brakes.
Goetz dashed out of the car after refusing to hand over the gun to the train conductor. He fled the city in a rented car, making it all the way to Bennington, Vt. There, he scattered pieces of the gun in the woods along with his blue jacket. Authorities visited his neighbors, asking for any leads as the manhunt continued for days without much success.
Then, on Dec. 31, 1984, Goetz turned himself in to police in Concord, N.H.
“I am the person they are seeking in New York,” Goetz told the officer on duty. In a taped interview, he told police he thought he was being robbed when the group approached him and he shot in self-defense, adding that he had been mugged before. Goetz was charged with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and other firearms offenses.
At trial, Goetz’s attorney argued the man feared he would be “beaten to a pulp” by the four youths. “The mind went off, the body went into automatic pilot,” defense attorney Barry I. Slotnick said in court. “People who are traumatized should not be convicted on the basis of their traumatization.”
A jury found Goetz guilty of one count of carrying an unlicensed firearm and acquitted him of the other charges.
Shortly after the sentencing in 1987, Sharpton told reporters he hoped the sentence “will send a signal that White vigilantism is not going to be excused … But if Bernie Goetz had been Black, he would have gotten [a] much [higher penalty].”
Goetz served eight months of the one-year sentence for the firearm offense because of good behavior. He declined to comment for this story.
“No, thank you,” Goetz told a Washington Post reporter on Saturday. “I’m only interested in promoting vegetarianism.”