Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Defending Oneself in Court

Rights vs. Justice

Colin Ferguson, after arrest
Colin Ferguson, after arrest

On December 7, 1993, a late-afternoon commuter train left Manhattan to go to Long Island, as documented on an American Justice program. The train was packed with people trying to get home. Colin Ferguson, 34, boarded it in Jamaica-Queens, armed with a 9mm handgun and a bag of bullets. He was angry, and he'd spent most of the day letting his anger fester. At the end of the day, he had gone to the train station. On the train, he took a seat and watched others get on. The train began to move. People closed their eyes or opened up the day's paper.

Suddenly Ferguson stood and fired his gun at a woman. He continued to shoot, hitting several more passengers. Some tried to escape into the next car or hide behind seats. Those who saw the shooter reported later that he had a blank look on his face. He fired 15 rounds in approximately ten seconds, and then reloaded, walking up the aisle and shooting. Then he stopped, and someone shouted to others to grab him. Three people did so, and he pleaded with them not to hurt him. At the next stop, he was removed. In less than two minutes, 19 people had been wounded and six were dead.

Colin Ferguson, in court
Colin Ferguson, in court

At police headquarters, authorities found notes in his pocket offering scribbled reasons for what he had done. He denied nothing, and justified his actions by saying that he had been persecuted his entire life by prejudice. Assigned lawyers decided to use the defense of temporary insanity in the form of "Black Rage," but Ferguson decided to dispense with them and defend himself. He refused to see a psychiatrist or have his records reviewed. To determine his competency, he merely had to describe the role of the prosecutor — and he was led along by the judge. He then offered his defense theory: A police officer had told him that someone else had done the shooting, so he was innocent. His lawyers insisted that this position was proof of his incompetency, but he continued to refuse to accept psychiatric care. Nevertheless, they strove to prove that he was psychotic and found a psychiatrist to testify to it. Yet the prosecutor said that Ferguson was malingering to throw things off track. He was scheming and manipulative, and therefore should be judged competent.

The judge once more found him competent — he knew the dangers of representing himself and had the right to do so.  Ferguson assured the judge that he would be a formidable opponent to the prosecution team, so on January 26, 1996, the case went to trial.  Despite Ferguson's claim, the DA had fifty people who could identify him as the shooter on the train that fateful day.  In addition, the gun used in the shootings belonged to him.  Ferguson's job was to convince the jury he was not the man.

Colin Ferguson
Colin Ferguson

In his opening statement, Ferguson said that the only reason there were 93 counts on the indictment was that it matched the year 1993 —the year of the incident.  "Had it been 1925," he insisted, "it would have been 25 counts."  He said that he was being victimized by a conspiracy out to destroy him.  The person who had committed the crime was a white gunman who had taken his weapon from the bag while he was asleep and started shooting.  Ferguson also accused a man who had tackled him of being the real killer, because he'd grabbed the gun.  Because President Clinton had honored this man, Ferguson wanted to subpoena the president.  In addition, he called a homicide detective, Brian Parpan, to the stand, attempting to prove that some other Colin Ferguson was the killer.

Resting his case, he spoke for three hours, insisting there was reasonable doubt and begging the jurors to see him as a persecuted human being.  They didn't.  Instead, they found Colin Ferguson guilty on all counts.  In March, Ferguson was sentenced to six consecutive life terms.

Legal experts and psychologists debated whether he should ever have been allowed to represent himself.  The DA said Ferguson had schooled himself in the law and fought for his innocence, so he was not in some "other world," as some mental- health experts insisted.   But can the same be said of the next case?


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