$50M suit against Goetz goes to trial

By The Associated Press
Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 8, 1996

NEW YORK - The day William Kunstler had long awaited is finally here, but the late lawyer won't be around to see Bernhard Goetz's civil trial.

More than 11 years after an encounter with four threatening youths transformed Goetz from unknown electronics nerd to notorious subway gunman, the $50 million lawsuit filed by one of his victims finally goes to trial this week.

''The poignancy of this case is going through the files, seeing Bill's notes, suggestions and writings,'' said Ronald Kuby, Kunstler's long-time law partner. ''The only sad thing about this case taking so long is that Bill isn't here as lead counsel.''

Kuby will handle the case alone, after working it side-by-side with Kunstler for more than a decade.

Over that time, the Goetz case was seized by advocates on opposing sides of urban issues: Crime. Race. Gun control. Vigilante justice. Much of the national attention surrounded his 1987 criminal trial. Goetz, acquitted of attempted murder, spent 81/2 months in jail on a weapons conviction.

Kunstler represented Darrell Cabey, who was paralyzed in the Dec. 22, 1984 shooting. A pre-trial hearing was set for today, with jury selection to follow.

Cabey, 30, slipped into a coma after being shot and suffered brain damage. He now has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old.

Cabey's case is simple: Goetz was a racist who overreacted when he needlessly shot the four black youths. After wounding Cabey, Goetz walked up to the bleeding youth and delivered the paralyzing gunshot, announcing, ''You don't look too bad, here's another.''

Goetz's defense is just as plain: He fired in self-defense when approached by four menacing muggers who tried to shake him down for $5. He declined to expound on that when reached by telephone last week, saying he was ''too busy'' to talk.

The two versions have remained constant in the 135 months since Goetz pulled his nickel-plated Smith & Wesson .38-caliber handgun. The familiarity is reflected in Billy Joel's hit song ''We Didn't Start the Fire'' with the lyric, ''Foreign debt, homeless vets, AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz.''

Kunstler died of a heart attack on Sept. 4, 1995, at age 76. Goetz, who survived a 1989 bout with cancer, has spent most of his money on legal costs. The three other wounded youths wound up in jail - James Ramseur for rape, and Barry Allen and Troy Canty for robbery.

Goetz, 48, no longer rides the subway and has mostly spurned the spotlight, preferring the solitude of his Greenwich Village apartment. Last month, he told NBC News that he was on a hallucinogenic drug when he made racist comments three years before the shootings.

Goetz, in a pre-trial deposition, never mentioned any drug use, although he's become an advocate of marijuana legalization.

Kunstler's death denied him the chance to follow through on a dispute that had become more personal over the years.

It was Kunstler who won a fight to keep the case in Cabey's home borough of the Bronx, where a study showed civil trial jury verdicts favor the plaintiff 79 percent of the time (the national figure is 57 percent.) Goetz wanted a change of venue to Manhattan, where he lives and the shootings occurred.

When Kunstler wrote in his autobiography that Goetz was ''a murderous vigilante'' with ''venomous feelings'' toward blacks, the subway gunman sued - one of two unsuccessful libel suits he filed against Kunstler and Kuby. He also filed an assortment of ethics charges against the pair; all were dismissed.

When Goetz was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Kunstler's response was pointedly unsympathetic.

''It possibly makes me believe in God,'' he reflected.