People v. Goetz
68 N.Y.2d 96, 497 N.E.2d 41 (1986)

  • Goetz was worried about getting mugged and so he carried a gun with him on the subway. Four youths approached him and one said, “Give me five dollars.” Goetz responded by shooting and wounding all four of the youths.
    • Goetz surveyed the scene, and realizing that one of the youths wasn’t wounded, went back and shot him again.
  • Goetz claimed he was being robbed, and then fled the scene, although he later turned himself in.
    • Goetz argued that he was shooting in self-defense.
  • The prosecutor told the Grand Jury that in order to be self-defense under New York law (Penal Law §35.15), a person must reasonably believe that the victim was about to use deadly force, or is committing a kidnapping, forcible rape, or robbery.
    • The prosecutor clarified that the jury should read the term reasonably believe as “whether the defendant’s conduct was that of a reasonable man in the defendant’s situation.” (the objective standard)
  • The Grand Jury charged Goetz with attempted murder, assault and weapons possession.
  • The Trial Court dismissed all the charged. The prosecutor appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the prosecutor had instructed the jury incorrectly. Under §35.15, the proper question was whether the defendant’s reactions were reasonable to him, not reasonable to a reasonable person. (the subjective standard).
      • A subjective standard would allow the jury to consider factors specific to Goetz, like the fact he had been mugged before and was extra scared.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal. The prosecutor appealed.
  • The New York Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the charges.
    • The New York Supreme Court noted that under Model Penal Code §3.04(2)(b) a defendant charged with murder (or attempted murder) need only show that he believed that the use of deadly force was necessary to protect himself to prevail on a self-defense claim (subjective standard)
      • However, if the defendant’s belief was reckless or negligent, he could still be charge with a lesser offense, like manslaughter.
        • See also Model Penal Code §3.09.
    • However, under §35.15, a defendant must reasonably believe that he was acting in self-defense. Because of that one-word change, the Court found that the Legislature intended people who unreasonably believe that they are acting in self-defense are excluded from using the defense (objective standard).
  • The Trial Court convicted Goetz of carrying an unlicensed concealed weapon, but acquitted him of all other counts. However, the youths sued Goetz and won $43M.