Netflix's 'Trial By Media': Where Is Bernhard Goetz Today In 2020?

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Netflix's 'Trial By Media': Where Is Bernhard Goetz Today In 2020?

One of the most notorious criminal cases of the 1980s was the 1984 Subway Vigilante trial. A man named Bernhard Goetz had boarded a subway train in New York, been approached by four teens who were asking for money, and shot all of them. Goetz slipped off the train and disappeared for a week before turning himself in.

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In the months that followed, his actions sparked a debate about whether he was a hero who took his safety into his own hands in one of the most crime-ridden cities in the U.S. or whether he was a cold-blooded attempted murderer. He was tried for his crimes and eventually acquitted. But later, his own words would cast doubt onto whether he really felt threatened by his victims or if he was racially-profiling them.

Now Netflix's new series Trial By Media is looking at the case and the reactions to it at the time.

Where is Bernhard Goetz today?

Read on for all the details. 

The Subway Vigilante captured the national imagination.

In 1984, a man shot four teens on a crowded subway car in New York City, then vanished from the train. The media at the time dubbed him the Subway Vigilate and used a sketch drawn from witness reports to stage a manhunt for the shooter. More than a week went by and it was beginning to seem like no one would ever find the vigilante. Then, a man in New Hampshire turned himself in, telling police he was the one who had shot the boys on the train. His name was Bernhard Goetz AKA Bernie Goetz and he was an electronics expert from New York. He claimed the boys had approached him to ask for money and he felt threatened by them. In his detailed confession, he claimed to have shot each of them, then turned back and shot one of them again, saying to the boy, "You seem ok. Here's another." Then he rushed off the train and fled.

He told police, "I wanted to kill those guys. I wanted to maim those guys. I wanted to make them suffer in every way I could…. If I had more bullets, I would have shot them all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets.” 

The four teens, all of whom were from Brooklyn, survived the shooting, though one of the victims, Darrell Cabey, was paralyzed from the waist down and suffered severe brain damage as a result of his injuries. 

Goezt at his trial. 

Goezt was a former victim of crime himself.

In the 1980s, New York was a hot spot for violent crime, and muggings were common on the subways. Goetz had been assaulted previously and the perpetrators were never prosecuted. In response, he had applied for a gun license but was denied one due to the strict issuance standards in New York. He eventually purchased a gun in Florida and carried it without proper paperwork in New York. That was the weapon he used in the shooting. 

Trial By Media examines how his story of being a mugging victim resonated with many New Yorkers who also worried about crime in the city. Many hailed him as a hero for standing up for himself in a situation where he felt under attack. The NRA took notice of the case because they opposed the strict barriers New York placed on gum permits and used Goetz as an example of a person who needed a gun for self-defense. 

On the other side of the debate were civil rights activists such as Al Sharpton who were concerned that fear of crime and racial profiling of Black youth could lead to more more vigilantism that would result in more injuries to Black people in the future. 

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Goezt was acquitted at trial.

In the highly-publicized trial, Goetz's team reminded jurors of how dangerous the subways were in New York and that Goezt acted rationally and lawfully in protecting himself. After just one day of deliberation, the jury returned a not guilty verdict on all but one of the charges: possessing an illegal firearm. Goezt was sentenced to one year in jail, of which he served only 8 months. 

The civil suit became a referendum on Goetz's racism.

After the criminal trial, the family of shooting victim Darrell Cabey sued Goetz over the irreparable injuries he received in the shooting. While Goetz's defense team was able to keep him off the stand in his criminal trial, his testimony was compelled at civil trial. The lawyers representing Cabey deposed Goetz then got him on the stand and forced him to answer for his previous statements. He admitted at trial that he had once attended a meeting about making his neighborhood safer where he said that the only way to clean up the streets was to get rid of the "sp*cs and [n-word]s." He also noted that he had made comments about the four teens he shot not bringing any value to society and said that the best thing would have been in Cabey's mother had aborted him. 

The jury awarded Cabey and his family $43 million. Immediately after the trial, Goetz, who had not been rich to begin with, declared bankruptcy. The Cabey family never received any money. 

Does Goetz have any regrets?

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One of the most chilling moments in the show is when producers played a recording of an interview Goetz did in 2017. The interviewers asked him if he regretted the shooting. After first sounding perplexed about what they even meant about regretting it, he said that no, he did not regret pulling the trigger. He continued and said that while he regretted some moments in his life, incidents that he called blunders, he did not regret pulling the trigger and shooting the four Black men on the subway.

Where is Bernie Goetz now?

Thanks to rent control and possibly his own stubbornness, Goetz is still living in the same apartment he lived in when the crimes took place. He continues to operate his electronics business but he has some other hobbies as well. He's an advocate for vegetarianism and he tried to run for mayor of New York in 2001. He also devotes a lot of time and energy to rescuing squirrels. In a peculiar parallel to his history with gun ownership, his squirrel ownership is also unlicensed. He said he took the test required to be a certified wildlife rescuer but never followed up on getting the proper permitting. He didn't want the state to be allowed to inspect his squirrel rehab practices. He has also been in trouble with his landlord over the squirrels in his apartment, as well as issues of hoarding. 

A proponent of legalizing marijuana, he was arrested in 2013 for trying to sell drugs to an undercover cop. 

Goetz feeding squirrels in 2019. 

Goetz didn't agree to speak with Netflix about Trial By Media

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.​