Quiet Rage: Bernie Goetz in a Time of Madness
The criminal courts building on Centre Street in New York is not far from the Chambers Street station on the IRT subway. That subway stop is on the minds of a half dozen of us—Judge Stephen Crane, lawyers for both sides, a reporter, a court reporter, and myself—as we encounter the prospective jurors in the trial of Bernhard Goetz, who is also present. Over two years ago, on the Saturday afternoon before Christmas, on the express train running south toward Chambers Street, the thirty-seven-year-old Goetz, a thin, blond electronics engineer, opened fire on four black youths, injuring all four and paralyzing one of them for life. His trial, which may last for two months, is rapidly approaching. No one disputes that one of the victims approached Goetz on the train and asked him for five dollars. By Goetz’s own admission, he replied, “Sure, I have dollars for each of you.” He then fired five shots in rapid succession.
The first prospective juror I witnessed one morning, an attractive young black social worker from Harlem, is unusually frank. In response to Justice Crane’s gentle questioning, she admits to thinking that all whites harbor fears of young black men moving in groups. “Sometimes that fear is played out in ugly ways.” She says that there is some connection between the Goetz case and the recent racially motivated attack on three black men in Howard Beach—at least to the extent that both reveal stereotypical thinking about blacks.
The lawyers have to think fast. The woman has strong opinions, she is obviously biased, but does this bias help the defense or the prosecution? Her views about whites’ fear of blacks help the defense insofar as they render Goetz’s alleged fear of the four youths more understandable and therefore arguably reasonable under the law. But if she thinks that all whites are bigots, she might lean toward the prosecution. This is, after all, a case in which a middle-class white shot and injured four ghetto blacks. The informal rule is that unless both sides agree to dismiss the candidate, all jurors willing to serve are put into a pool for later, more intensive questioning in open court.
The assumed purpose of jury selection is to find impartial and unbiased jurors. The faith that this is possible in any trial, let alone one of the most sensationally publicized cases of recent years, can only strike the legally sophisticated as quaint. Prevailing academic wisdom puts in question the possibility of objective knowledge concerning human intentions; subjective interest shapes most of our efforts to establish what “really happens” in the world. Yet the law remains committed to the idea of jurors’ perceiving and reporting the facts as though they had no distinctive window on reality. In practice, only judges maintain the official faith in objectivity. Lawyers naturally seek jurors who lean to their side, but not so obviously as to be subject to challenge by opposing counsel for bias or cause. Before …