The roller-coaster case of "subway vigilante" Bernhard Hugo Goetz, absolved of attempted murder by one grand jury and indicted for it Wednesday by another, left New Yorkers as polarized as ever today. His trial, expected in midsummer, will test his claim of self-defense in the shooting of four black youths in a subway last December.
"It's the muggers versus the muggees," his attorney, Barry Slotnik, said today. "The muggers won Round 2 . . . . We are coming up for Round 3."
The issues raised by Goetz -- and by public reaction to the case -- are unresolved: what to do about big-city crime, an overburdened and underfunded criminal justice system and some citizens' loss of faith in government's ability to keep the peace.
Today the tabloid headlines screeched: "Goetz Faces Life in Jail" . . . "Jury Throws Book at Goetz." With its bizarre twists, the case has hooked the city on the saga of this obscure, middle-class engineer who, hero or villain, has become a national celebrity.
In this crime-obsessed city, almost everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Goetz. Although blacks appear somewhat more sympathetic to the youths he has confessed to shooting, many have been victims of crime and remain angry.
A score of citizens, interviewed randomly on the city subways today, was about evenly divided on the latest grand jury decision.
Dee Speakes, 32, a black schoolteacher from Brooklyn, said Goetz "didn't deserve" to be indicted. "I feel what he did was justified," she said. "I was a victim of crime in the subway, and if I had had a gun I would've blown him away."
Donna Anderson, 24, a white bank employe, approved of the indictment but added, "Other things should be said . . . . Riding the subway day after day, your tension reaches a boiling point."
Several reflected the backlash in public opinion after Goetz, initially hailed as a victim who "fought back," called on more citizens to arm themselves against crime and played to the tabloids' thirst for headlines.
"I don't see him as a hero," said Jeff Farber, 41, a records manager. "When I see him on television, I react with distaste. There is something wrong with this man. I have no sympathy for muggers, but this isn't the solution; someone with a gun is out looking for trouble."
Albina Tamalonis, 34, a psychotherapist, said she thought Goetz "went into some kind of psychotic break . . . . I don't think it was premeditated . . . . If I were on the jury, I probably would not convict him."
Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has shifted on the Goetz case with each wave of public opinion, told one reporter that he would read the indictment, but said "I may not even comment" then. Nonetheless, he could not resist remarking, "Even a flake has a right to self-defense."
Kate Klein, head of the Mayor's Action Center, said 44 telephone calls came in after Wednesday's indictment and "every last one was supportive of Goetz . . . . I find the whole thing kind of scary."
The trial is expected to center on Goetz's claim that he shot the youths because he felt threatened when one of them approached and asked for $5. Under New York law, self-defense is a valid plea if a person felt threatened, irrationally or not. Goetz and several witnesses have said the incident took only a few seconds.
Goetz, who had bought a gun after being severely beaten in a mugging in 1981, "snapped," his attorneys contend. But prosecutors certainly will focus on why Goetz allegedly shot two of the youths in the back as they fled and shot another for the second time after telling him, "You don't look too bad. Here's another."
Goetz said the youths' body language persuaded him that he was about to be beaten up, but it is unclear whether they had surrounded him, as he contends. The youths have said they were only panhandling and did not intend to rob him.
In an interview with The Washington Post shortly after the shootings, two of the youths said they were carrying screwdrivers because they were on their way downtown to steal from video arcades.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a Judiciary Committee member who held hearings on the Goetz case, said, "This is a very important case because it focuses on the failure of the criminal justice system and the public disgust. The public has no confidence in the system of law enforcement. There is a feeling that it is all right to take the law into one's own hands."
At his arraignment today, Goetz pleaded not guilty and was released on $5,000 bond.