By Harry Siegel and Filipa Ioannou
“I’m surprised,” said Bernhard Goetz, outside of his 20-story apartment building on Manhattan’s 14th Street, the same street he lived on back in 1984, when he shot four black teenagers on a downtown No. 2 subway train. “I’m surprised the same thing is happening 30 years later. It’s a different place, but the prosecution is the same.”
The man he says “the same thing is happening” to now, George Zimmerman, was just 1 year old in 1984, when Goetz, now 65, “stood his ground” against Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur, friends who had come down from the Bronx to rob video-arcade change boxes. When the mild-looking electrical engineer, who’d been violently robbed before, got on the train at 14th Street, the four boys surrounded him and, after one of them asked him for five dollars, he unloaded his unlicensed revolver, hitting all four of them. He then fled through a tunnel before police arrived, and the identity of the white “subway vigilante” remained a mystery until he turned himself in to the New Hampshire police four days later, offering a dramatic confession that may have shaded into revenge fantasy. All four boys survived, though one was paralyzed, yet Goetz became a folk hero in the eyes of many New Yorkers and Americans at a time when urban crime was widely considered out of control, daylight muggings were commonplace, and the murder rate in Gotham was more than three times what it is today. After a riveting eight-week trial that captured national headlines, and hinged on the question of whether or not he had reason to fear for his life, Goetz was convicted only of criminal possession of a lethal weapon and was sentenced to just six months in prison.
Zimmerman, whose murder trial will conclude Friday when his defense offers its closing argument, was a neighborhood-watch captain in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.—a far cry from mid-1980s Manhattan—last Feburary when he confronted Trayvon Martin, a teenager with no criminal record or history of violent behavior. “These assholes, they always get away,” Zimmerman told a police dispatcher after spotting Martin—before he disregarded the dispatcher’s instructions and got out of his car, with a loaded gun, to confront the teenager who was returning home with a drink and Skittles from a trip to a convenience store during half-time of the NBA All-Star game. That confrontation ended with the two individuals fighting and Zimmerman shooting Martin, who died on the scene. The police, though, released Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, after just a few hours—before they’d even conclusively identified his victim.