It was an average Tuesday evening, December 7, 1993, when a group of commuters on a Long Island Rail Road car came face to face with the sort of terror most people see only on television. Without warning, a Jamaican immigrant named Colin Ferguson pulled out a pistol and started firing at random, killing 6 passengers and wounding 19. After Ferguson was convicted and before he was sentenced, the survivors of his attack and the relatives of his victims got a rare chance. The judge allowed them to confront their tormentor and speak their minds about him, about justice, about their own lives and their futures.
Colin Ferguson was born with many advantages. In his native country of Jamaica, Ferguson attended the exclusive Calabar Boys' High School, an academy that numbers among its alumni Percival Patterson, the island's Prime Minister. The Fergusons lived in a two-story home protected by walls and wrought-iron gates in Kingston's elite suburb of Havendale. His father Von Herman Ferguson, was one of the most prominent businessmen in Jamaica. When the elder Ferguson died in a car accident in 1978, his funeral was attended by government and military luminaries.
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However, that passage and the subsequent death of Ferguson's mother from cancer shattered the family's fortunes. In 1982 Ferguson, then 24, left for the U.S. where he was never able to re-create the life he had led on the island of his birth.
At first, though, there had been hope. He met Audrey Warren, an American of Jamaican descent, married her in 1986, and qualified for permanent U.S. residency. The couple moved into a house on Long Island and had a son. Enrolled in a local community college, Ferguson made the dean's list three times. But that approximation of bliss collapsed in 1988,
when Warren sued for divorce and won custody of their child. By that last
week of the divorce, Ferguson was jobless and living in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, in a tiny $175-a-month room with a communal bath down the
His descent was precipitous. At the time of his divorce, Ferguson began working for Ademco, a burglar-alarm manufacturer. A year into his job he fell from a stool, receiving a back injury that led to his termination at Ademco. He sued for compensation, and won a $26,250 judgment but, for
some reason, tried to reopen proceedings with the New York State workers'
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compensation board. He complained that he was a victim of racial prejudice and rejected the state-appointed doctors that were sent to examine him because their surnames sounded ethnic and not black. Eventually, Ferguson, who wrote and called incessantly, was put on a list of possible troublemakers and the security guards at the board were on the watch for him.
In the fall of 1990 Ferguson enrolled at Adelphi University and got into angry confrontations with teachers and students, accusing white students of racism and black activists of being ``Uncle Toms.'' ``Black rage will get you,'' he told a black professor. He talked loudly of violent race
wars and revolution. He interrupted a lecture by yelling ``Kill everybody white!'' and by 1991, ferguson was suspended. In 1992 his ex-wife, who has not spoken to him since their divorce, filed a complaint with police charging that Ferguson had pried open the trunk of her car. Ferguson also clashed with the police when he got into a shoving match with a woman over a subway seat. He had compiled a list of complaints and enemies, as did other recent mass murderers including Alan Winterbourne, who shot four people in Oxnard, California, and Gian Luigi Ferri, who killed eight
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people in a San Francisco office building. Ferguson started to believe
almost everyone white, Asian, or black had become a racist and particularly prejudiced against him (Toufexis 1993).
Early this year Ferguson went to California in search of new
opportunities. There were only new humiliations. He did not like
competing with immigrants and Hispanics for jobs. When Ferguson applied at a car wash, the manager laughed at him. The next day, Ferguson walked
into Turner's Outdoorsman and made a downpayment on a gun. As proof of
residency, he used a California driver's license he had received on a previous visit and the Royal Motel address. Fifteen days later his security check was completed, and Ferguson paid the balance. By the end of May 1993, he was back in New York City with the Ruger. Ferguson thought that the compensation board was going to reopen his case on Dec. 3 1993. On the following Tuesday, when he learned that the news was false, he boarded the 5:33 train to Hicksville (Beck 1993).
Patrick Dennis was awakened in the middle of the night by police officers pounding on his door. They said they were authorized to search the room that Colin Ferguson rented from Denis's mother in the East Flatbush
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section of Brooklyn, but they refused to say anything more. Days prior, Denis had heard the volatile Jamaican immigrant reading loudly from the Bible and ranting about racial discrimination. He'd tried to argue with him,
pointing out that his Christian views were at odds with his angry feelings. But Ferguson had only gotten angrier. Dennis, fearing he was suicidal, had asked him to move. "I kept thinking I'd find him hanging from the ceiling," he said. No one could have predicted that Ferguson's simmering rage would compel him to buy a ticket on the 5:33 train to Hicksville. Police said he waited until it crossed the Nassau County line, then methodically mowed down fellow passengers with his 9-mm Ruger semiautomatic handgun, leaving 6 dead and 19 wounded on December 7, 1993 (Beck 1993).
When the shooting began, Esther Confino says, ``I got down as low as I could and covered my head with my handbag and just prayed.'' Perhaps a prayer can stop a Black Talon, but a pocketbook probably will not. The bullet is designed to unsheathe its claws once inside the victim's body and tear it to pieces. That's what Colin Ferguson was firing, to the right, then the left, as he walked backward through the third car of the 5:33 train to Hicksville, New York. The passengers who crushed toward the exits or
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dove under their seats or tried to hide behind their handbags did not stand much of a chance. By the time it was over, Confino told reporters, her purse was soaked with the blood of a fellow passenger.
About 90 commuters were trapped on the car with the madman. The first ones to die were three men sitting reading their newspapers when
Ferguson shot them in the head. The last one, Maria Magtoto, was shot in
the back as she tried to make it out of the car. Ferguson watched the
panicking passengers screaming for the doors to open. ``I'm going to get
you,'' he told them.
Mi Kyung Kim, a library assistant at Columbia University's Mathematics/Science Library, was also killed during the mass shooting aboard the Long Island Rail Road train. Kim, 27, was one of 6 killed
and 19 wounded by Ferguson after he opened fire inside the train as it approached the Merillon Avenue station in Garden City, Long Island on its route to Hicksville. Three passengers subdued and disarmed Ferguson when he returned to his seat to reload a Ruger 9mm semiautomatic handgun after firing approximately 30 rounds (Rogers 1994).
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Carolyn McCarthy, a nurse and mother living in Nassau County, Long Island, life was shattered when Ferguson, opened fire on the Rail Road commuter train. Among the other victims were her husband, who was killed, and her adult son, who was seriously injured and remains partially disabled.
"I haven't been on a train since it happened," says Maryanne Phillips, when she watched Colin Ferguson come down the aisle of the 5:33 to suburban Hicksville, to pull out a semiautomatic and shoot 25 people in the face, the leg, the heart. But when Ferguson ran out of bullets and had to reload his 9-mm semiautomatic Ruger for a second time, the passengers saw their chance. Two men huddled in the doorway looked at each other, looked at the killer and said, ``Let's get him.'' A third joined in as they sprinted down the aisle, lunged forward and pinned Ferguson back against a seat, and then
ripped the gun away. By the time the death train pulled into the station
at Garden City, Long Island, passengers were caring for one another,
turning neckties into tourniquets, and the killer was subdued. After the comotion Ferguson only response was, ``I did a bad thing.'' (Beck 1993).
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At the time of Fergusons arrest, police said, they found four pages of notes in his pocketsdetailing his perceived grievances. Under the heading "Reasons for this " he'd listed: "Racism by Caucasians and Uncle Tom Negroes...Adelphi University's racism...Workers' Compensation's racism...and those filthy swines that live at 226 Martense St" (the Dennis residence in Brooklyn). Yet the racism that obsessed Ferguson seemed to exist mostly in his mind. In an earlier incidents before his killing spree, he yelled at his perceived enemies, ``Black rage will get you!'' Now ``black rage'' became the defense in his trial.
In the beginning, Ferguson's lawyers, famed criminal defense attorney William Kunstler and co-counsel Ronald Kuby, intend to shape an insanity plea using black rage. In a widely praised 1968 study titled Black Rage, African-American psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs argued that racism forced blacks to make certain social adaptations, becoming mistrustful and suspicious of outsiders. That, say Ferguson's lawyers, combined with a mental disorder, triggered their client's attack and should mitigate whatever punishment is meted out to him. Being exposed to racist treatment over a long period of time drove Ferguson to violence.
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Critics say arguments based on black rage are troubling because, unlike battered women who kill their abusive husbands, defendants in such cases would not need to produce a record of specific life-threatening conditions just social and environmental causes (Van Biema 1995).
Fergusons original attorneys, radical lawyers William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby, acknowledged as much when they offered up the controversial ``black rage defense,'' suggesting that an already unbalanced Ferguson had been pushed over the edge into murder by endemic American racism (Gregory 1994).
To the relief of many, the defendant himself rejected that argument. But then he announced his improbable alternative: he would prove that a Caucasian male was the real killer. And he would do so as his own counsel. Kunstler and Kuby gamely presented him with a copy of the courtroom bible Fundamentals of Trial Techniques. Ferguson's courtly legalisms ``Did there come a time .'' and ``Is it your testimony that . . .'' and his formal complaints of ``Hearsay!'' or ``Leading the witness!'' chimed very oddly with the preposterousness of his core thesis, expressed in an eerie third person: ``The evidence will show that Colin Ferguson was in fact a well-
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meaning passenger on the train . . . Like any other passenger, he dozed off having the weapon in a bag. At that point someone . . . took the weapon out of the bag and proceeded to shoot.''
He wore a lawyerly tie and brown tweed jacket and spoke in a jurist's measured tones. He was sufficiently rational to raise objections that were then sustained by the judge. Yet it was not too long into the first day of the trial Ferguson, lawyer, mused publicly on the 93 charges against Colin Ferguson, defendant, and the audience at the Nassau County, New York, supreme court got a taste of the sort of down-the-rabbit-hole experience they were in for. Leaning informally on a lectern, peering down earnestly at the jury, the Jamaican native intoned his theory: ``There were 93 counts to that indictment, 93 counts only because it matches the year 1993. If it had it been 1925, it would have been a 25-count indictment.''
Serving as his own lawyer, he baited and insulted his victims. In an extraordinary display of courage, more than a dozen survivors allowed themselves to be attacked yet again. None buckled. "There was a real sense of 'Listen it's our turn to respond. Let's occupy a higher plane than the one this misfit occupied," says Thomas McDermott, who took a bullet in the left
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shoulder. Witnesses who testified were Frank Barker, Kevin McCarthy, Jill Michel, Carolyn McCarthy (whose husband died on son Kevin's lap), Michael O'Connor (who tackled Ferguson), McDermott, Mark McEntee (who also tackled Ferguson), John Forni (who tried to tackle Ferguson and was shot five times), Phillips (who underwent four operations on her arm), Helen Goldstone, Lisa Combatti (who was pregnant with Kimberly, now 23 months old, when a bullet pierced her back).
The most bizarrely charged moment came when Ferguson cross-examined Maryanne Phillips, who had taken a bullet in the chest and played possum to avoid anymore harm to herself. ``It was your statement that you
played dead and that you were closing your eyes?'' Ferguson asked. ``I
didn't want you to shoot me again,'' she replied levelly, at the time staring right back at Ferguson (Thigpen 1995).
Having the victims face their attacker helped dispel fears that Ferguson as lawyer might traumatize surviving victims who once again found themselves trapped in an enclosed space (a witness box), menaced by the same man who had tormented them 14 months before. It left observers free to consider the remaining issue: Could Ferguson receive a fair trial if he
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was being represented by a crazy man? Or could county court judge Donald E. Belfi prevent such a travesty?
Not easily. Belfi had heard competing psychologists and then accepted the prosecution's contention that although the defendant might be
paranoid, he was competent to stand trial. The judgment was debatable.
Says Kuby: ``They should have found him incompetent and packed him off
to a mental institution.'' But it was in keeping with current judicial practice and with the belief of many Americans that an asylum is too good for the likes of Ferguson or, say, Jeffrey Dahmer.
However, having decided competence, Belfi was obligated to let Ferguson represent himself because of a 1993 Supreme Court majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas. If a defendant is competent to stand trial, it ran, he is competent to decide whether to represent himself. And if he so opts, then the presiding judge's opinion of how well he would do the job is immaterial.
Unless Ferguson became overtly disruptive, which he has avoided, it seemed that the only way for Belfi to cut short his surreal career at the bar would be to rescind the decision on competence to stand trial, thereby
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ending the proceedings. That could have sat badly with Phillips, her fellow victims and much of the public.
During the trial witnesses gave such testimony such as, "I know I have an impossible request, your honor. But given five minutes alone with Colin Ferguson, this coward would know the meaning of suffering.... To Ferguson: Look at these eyes. You can't look at 'em, right? You can't. You remember these eyes. You're nothing but a piece of garbage. You're a expletive animal. Five minutes. That's all I need with you. Five minutes."
Carolyn McCarthy, whose son was partially paralyzed and whose husband was killed by Ferguson's bullets said, "You are an evil person. You are not worthy of my time or thoughts or energy. You will be sentenced, and you will be gone from my thoughts forever." (Roberts 1995).
After more than 10 hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Colin Ferguson, 37, of murdering six passengers on the Long Island Rail Road in December 1993 and attempting to kill 19 others. When Ferguson received 200 years and six life terms, the survivors embraced in a bittersweet moment that seemed finally to close a terrible chapter of their lives.
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During the bizarre three-week trial, Ferguson, acting as his own attorney, tried to call President Clinton as a witness, badgered his victims on cross-examination and even appeared as a guest on the "Today" show and "Larry King Live." Victims and their families cheered as Ferguson was led from the courtroom. These people, still today continue to recover.
Life could not be better at one point and time with Colin Ferguson. He had what most people today work very hard and all their life for, when all of a sudden everything came to a bitter end with murder and violence. Now he is spending the rest of his natural life in prison with no parole. An individual does not know what the future has in store for him or her, but that person must be prepared for lifes struggles. If Colin Ferguson had some counseling before that tragic train ride, I would have had to choose a different subject to write on. Although many people say that Ferguson was mentally deranged, not everyone could have the courage to defend themselves with 93 charges against them. Society can take over the most intelligent people in the world today. But if one is not careful or strong, he or she is just a mirror of what they see.
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Beck, M. (1993, December 20). Rage, Resentment, and a Ruger. Newsweek, 122, 31-32.
Gregory, S. S. (1994, June 6). Black Rage: In Defense Of A Mass Murderer. Time, 143, 31-32.
Rogers, M. (1994, January 1). Librarian Shot on Train. Library Journal, 119, 30-31.
Roberts, S. V. (1995, April 3). Staring Back Into The Eyes Of Evil. U.S. News ; World Report, 118, 8-9.
Thigpen, D. E. (1995, April 3). Confronting the Killer. Time, 145,
Toufexis, A. (1993, December 20). A Mass Murderers Journey
Toward Madness. Time, 142, 25-26.
Van Biema, D. (1995, February 6). A Fool For A Client. Time, 145,