A CRIME OF SELF-DEFENSE: Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial by George P. Fletcher

A CRIME OF SELF-DEFENSE: Bernhard Goetz and the Law on Trial

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Just how far can an individual go in our society to defend himself from perceived dangers? That's the theme of Fletcher's (Law/Columbia) assessment of the famed Goetz case. Tackling a subject fraught with sensationalism, Fletcher takes the high ground in undertaking a reasoned, dispassionate analysis of the legal issues at stake and the implications of the jury's verdict. The author is equivocal toward Goetz: on the one hand, he finds him sympathetic as a common man who ""had emerged from the shadows of fear. He shot back when others only fantasize their responses to shakedowns on the New York subways."" On the other hand, he believes that Goetz evinces ""what sociologists would call a propensity toward victimization, a strong suggestion of deliberately courting danger running through his personal history."" But underlying these personal views are the legal distinctions to be made. Under what circumstances does the law accept self-defense as an excuse for inflicting harm on others? Four elements--imminence of threat, necessity of response, proportionality of response, and intention to thwart attack, rather than hurt--provide the general framework for the law of self-defense. This theory, in effect, says that burglars and muggers also have rights ""and the rights of the victims must therefore be restricted when their exercise inflicts an excessive cost on those who attack him."" Fletcher admits that society has returned to a more absolutist approach on self-defense, and that this tolerance is tied in with the question of ""reasonableness."" Under the Model Penal Code, ""if Goetz had believed, in good faith, but unreasonably, in the necessity of defensive force, he would not be liable for any form of attempted homicide."" But Fletcher does not see Goetz's reasonableness as cut-and-dried: ""Had he been more sensitive, say, to the inhibiting effect of a crowded subway, he might not have perceived the same degree of danger in the situation."" Despite the tendentious legalistic approach, it is refreshing to be placed in the juror's box and be given an opportunity to assess the true issues behind the newspaper clichÉs. In that respect, Fletcher has provided us all a service.

Pub Date: June 20th, 1988
ISBN: 0226253341
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan