Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Age of Goetz

In the mid-1980s – one might call it, in criminal law terms, The Age of Goetz – Professor Bruce Berner taught me criminal law and procedure at Valparaiso University School of Law. It was The Age of Goetz in the sense that the Bernhard Goetz “subway vigilante” case was the highest profile criminal case of my law school years. The lively discussion about the “not guilty by reason of mental illness” verdict in the trial of John Hinckley for shooting President Reagan was starting to recede in the general public’s mind. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling had published their influential “Broken Windows” article in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic, but the broken windows response to crime was only beginning to emerge. The fateful explosion in federal drug penalties that followed the fatal overdose of basketball star Len Bias in 1986 had not yet occurred. But starting in December 1984 and throughout 1985, the Goetz case, involving a claim of self-defense by a white commuter who shot four young (18-19) men on the New York subway, dominated the news.

Professor Berner seamlessly worked the Goetz case into his teaching of criminal procedure in the winter and spring of 1985. A year earlier, he had taught me the basics of criminal law so well that the elements of common law crimes have become fixtures in my memory. The elements of burglary? Breaking and entering, of a dwelling house, in the nighttime, with the intent to commit a felony, of course. Does the “curtilage” count as a dwelling house? Is walking through a wide-open front door a “constructive” breaking? Bruce has empowered a generation of Valpo law students to think like lawyers, using these old chestnuts as the building blocks.

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