People v. Goetz

The Facts

Defendant indicted on attempted murder, assault for shooting and wounding four young people on a subway.  One or two of the youths approached defendant and asked him for five dollars.  Two of the four were carrying screw drivers, they said were used to break into coin machines, while defendant was carrying a handgun.  One youth approached defendant and demanded five dollars but did not display a weapon.  Defendant stood up in response and fired four shots, hitting each youth.  Defendant told the conductor, who was first on the scene that the youths had tried to rob him, then fled the scene on foot.  After turning himself in defendant later admitted that he knew none of the youths had a gun, but he had a fear, based on prior experience, of being maimed by all four of them.  He also stated that his shots were intended to kill or hurt the youths as much as possible.  Defendant also admitted shooting at two of the four youths who began to flee after seeing the first shots.

Procedural History

Lower courts conclude that the prosecution charge as to justification was erroneous and dismissed the charges.  Defendant argues that at trial the prosecutor incorrectly asserted a subjective element to jurors to consider whether defendant’s conduct was that of a reasonable man “in Goetz’s situation.”  The court decided that the test should be entirely subjective and dismissed because Goetz’s self-defense was entirely reasonable to him.


“A person may use physical force upon another person when and to the extent he reasonably believes such to be necessary to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the imminent use of unlawful physical force by such other person.”  “A person may not use deadly physical force upon another person under circumstances specified in subdivision one unless he reasonably believes that such other person is using or about to use deadly physical force if he reasonably believes that such other person is committing or attempting to commit a kidnapping, forcible rape, forcible sodomy or robbery.”

The Issue

Whether deadly force exercised in self-defense should be subjectively reasonable to the specific defendant or objectively reasonable (a reasonable person’s response).

The Holding/Reasoning

Objective, appellate decision overruled. The statute requires the defendant to reasonably believe that the force used is necessary to avert the perceived threat.  The interpretation that the level of force be subjectively reasonable contravenes legislative intent.  The model penal code and New York state law basically holds that, “If the defendant’s belief was wrong, and was recklessly, or negligently formed, however, he may be convicted of the type of homicide charge requiring only a reckless or negligent, as the case may be, criminal intent.”  If the legislature wanted to insert a subjective element into the belief in the necessity of force, they would not have inserted the word “reasonably.”  They could have simply stated “… if the defendant believes.”

Permitting a subjective standard would allow any defendant to assert his own belief at the time of the necessity of force and therefore completely exonerate.  “It would also allow a legally competent defendant suffering from delusions to kill or perform acts of violence with impunity, contrary to fundamental principles of justice and criminal law.”  This does not mean that the defendant’s prior experiences can be ignored.  “We have frequently noted that a determination of reasonableness must be based on the circumstances facing a defendant or his situation.”  Therefore, any knowledge that defendant had about the assailants, physical characteristics of assailants is relevant, as is the defendant’s prior experiences which would be used to form a reasonable basis of a belief that deadly force was necessary in the particular circumstance.


The court states that hereforward, “a jury must first determine whether the defendant had the requisite beliefs … that he believed deadly force was necessary to aver the imminent use of deadly force or the commission of one of the felonies therein.  If the People do not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not have such beliefs, then the jury must also consider whether these beliefs were reasonable.  The jury would have to determine, in light of all the circumstances … if a reasonable person could have had these beliefs.”

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