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The Long-Island Railroad Murder - "Black Rage" or "So Crazy He Thinks He's Sane?"

On December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson marched up the aisle of a crowded, evening rush-hour Long Island Railroad car, shooting the passengers as the train pulled into the Merillion Avenue station. When he was finished, six were dead and 19 were injured. In the end, Ferguson was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences - about 200 years of prison time - but before it concluded, the case raised serious questions about insanity and the law.

Noted criminal defense specialists William M. Kunstler and Ronald L. Kuby took Ferguson's case. They attempted to introduce a "black rage" defense on Ferguson's behalf. They argued that years of living in an oppressive, race-biased society had so affected Ferguson's mind that he was not acting wilfully when he opened fire on unarmed commuters. Ferguson disagreed with their strategy, and dismissed them. He wanted to argue, against dozens of eyewitnesses and police reports, that he was framed for the shooting, and that someone else committed the murders.

Ferguson chose to defend himself. Kunstler and Kuby opposed his decision, and had the court make a preliminary determination of his psychological competency to stand trial; in effect, they asked the court to determine whether or not he was sane enough to be making such a fundamental decision about his own defense. The court determined Ferguson was indeed competent, and the trial proceeded. Kuby sat in as an assistant, but Ferguson directed his own defense.

What ensued convinced many people that Ferguson was, indeed, insane. His defense theory was that he was set up and that he did not commit the murders. On cross-examination of witnesses, some of whom had been wounded in the attack, he engaged in long, rambling narratives and accused police of conspiring against him. On February 17, 1993, a jury found him guilty of the murders.

The next day, Kuby and Kunstler withdrew from the case, and again asked the court to find Ferguson unfit to stand trial. One example of his insanity, Kuby opined, was his refusal to utilize the insanity defense. "Colin Ferguson has never permitted any lawyer to stand up in court and argue his insanity," Koby observed, adding, "He's too crazy."

During the sentencing hearing, Ferguson reiterated his entire defense theory. In a three-hour summation, he compared himself to the Christian New Testament's John the Baptist, and claimed history would prove him right. Judge Donald E. Belfi of the Nassau County Court strongly disagreed. He called Ferguson "selfish," "self-righteous," and "a coward." Noting Ferguson's "total lack of remorse," Belfi sentenced him to six consecutive life sentences.

Kuby and other observers insisted Ferguson should not have been allowed to defend himself. His conduct of the trial and his decision not to use the highly plausible plea, "not guilty by reason of insanity," demonstrated his lack of fitness for trial, they claimed. Even if he had been committed to state psychiatric institutions for the rest of his life, many believed, the justice system would have been spared the mockery of its system by an obviously insane man.

The counter-argument, however, centers on personal autonomy and the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment guarantees American criminal defendants control of their own defense. So long as a defendant is capable of putting forth a comprehensible defensive strategy, it is argued, the same government that seeks to imprison him should not interfere with his freedom.

Given Theodore John Kaczynski's unwillingness to agree with his lawyers' insanity defense strategy, it is possible that Kaczynski, like Colin Ferguson, seeks to turn his criminal trial into a platform for his political beliefs. If that happens, the main question will be how much freedom the court - and Kaczynski's court-appointed attorneys - will give him, and when the court will step in to restore order to the trial.

Prepared by Michael Peil for the Legal Information Institute. Last updated 21 December 1997 at 01:18.