NEW YORK, JUNE 17 -- In the shimmering heat of a South Bronx housing project, where misery is painted black and the white prosperity of Manhattan is a long subway ride away, the verdict of Bernhard H. Goetz was debated today in murky shades of gray.
No matter that downtown, politicians, civil rights leaders and pundits were issuing stern pronouncements against vigilantism and complicated analyses of self-defense statutes. No matter that a tabloid's banner headline declared "A Triumph for Common Sense."
Here in Claremont Village, a stark scattering of brick highrises -- home to the four youths who were gunned down by Goetz -- his acquittal on attempted-murder charges and his conviction on a minor gun-possession count was far from a matter of black vs. white, of good vs. evil, or of "savages" -- as Goetz's lawyer called them -- vs. a "cold-blooded murderer," as Goetz once called himself.
Listen to Sidney Bolding, 36, drinking a mid-morning beer out of a brown paper bag on a bench. "Race always comes into the picture," he said. "Goetz'll never see the inside of a jail because he's white." But Bolding sees another side to the story. The four "were all rough kids," he said. "I don't really feel sorry for any of them."
Listen to Bruce Robertson, 23, a Shea Stadium sweeper wearing a Mets cap and talking over the disco beat of a booming tape deck. "It ain't a racist thing," he said. Three of the youths -- Troy Canty, now in a drug-rehabilitation program, and James Ramseur and Barry Allen, in prison for rape and robbery respectively -- "they've been in trouble all their lives," he said.
But for Darrell Cabey, the 20-year-old brain-damaged and paralyzed from Goetz's bullets, Robertson had second thoughts. "Cabey," he said, "got caught up in the wrong crowd that day. He's the only one I really feel sorry for. They was probably rapping and he just got on the train with them. Darrell was cool, he rapped to everybody, talked to everybody. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Gathered in small knots, listlessly chatting, the friends, relatives and neighbors of the four youths had little to say about the grander issues of public policy. For them, as for the 12 jurors who sat through a seven-week trial, the case was far from abstract. It was, in the end, a drama specific to the five people involved, and their particular circumstances.
In a dingy hallway of a building in the project, a man who identified himself as Cabey's older brother peeked through a cracked door, then slammed it shut and shouted a string of "No comments" from the other side.
Cabey, who now stutters when he talks and is growing fat from confinement in a wheelchair, according to friends, is represented by civil rights lawyer William Kunstler in a $50 million suit against Goetz. He is being cared for by his mother, who quit her job as a dietician after his injury. His father was killed in 1973 while fending off the theft of his taxicab.
In the Claremont Village project, where impoverished families live for years, most people seem to know their neighbors. And almost everybody seemed to know the four youths personally or through their families.
Jerome Richardson, 24, a shipping clerk who works nights, lolled outside his apartment building with three friends, dressed in brightly colored jams. Richardson knows the four youths too well. Ramseur, he said, raped his sister -- the crime for which Ramseur is now serving 25 years in prison. Canty, the youth who approached Goetz for $5, once "stole my brother's chain."
"I'm no angel myself," Richardson said. "But they're a menace to society. This is a bad neighborhood . . . . Race ain't got nothing to do with it. Those guys hassle anybody. They would hassle somebody black as fast as white. I feel Goetz should have killed them."
Across the street, Arnold Stewart, 29, an unemployed factory worker in a white undershirt, stood watching a truck from the city's Department of Human Resources unload cheese, rice and butter. Stewart said he'd served four years in prison for armed robbery.
Goetz's victims were known in the neighborhood for "robbery, breaking and entering," he said. "They're not good kids, but they ain't especially bad.
"Everytime a black person is involved in a shooting, there's no media, you just go to jail," Stewart mused. "What I did was wrong, but what Goetz did is worse."
Meanwhile, on the edge of Manhattan's Greenwich Village today, Goetz, the enigmatic electronics engineer, stayed shut up in his apartment. The building entrance was crowded with camera crews, reporters and curious citizens.
"His spirits are very good," said one of his lawyers, Mark Baker. "He's hanging around the apartment enjoying the quiet. He's been in the middle of the media circus for a long time, and he is enjoying the solitude."