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 murderassault, and weapons possession.

The Trial Court dismissed all the charges. 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 charged with a lesser offense, like manslaughter.

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.