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December 7, 1993, Man Opens Fire On Long Island Rail Road Commuter Train Killing Six - Today In Crime History

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On this day, December 7, in the year 1993, Colin Ferguson opened fire on the Long Island Rail Road commuter train from New York City, killing 6 and injuring 19 others.  Train passengers stopped the perpetrator by tackling and holding him down.

At 5:33 p.m., on December 7, 1993, Colin Ferguson, a mentally unstable man, boarded the train out of Penn Station carrying an semi-automatic pistol.  As the train pulled into Garden City, Ferguson began running down the aisle, randomly shooting passengers.  He killed six and wounded nineteen before being tackled and held down by three passengers.

In his pocket authorities found four pieces of notebook paper that contained a handwritten rambling explanation for the shootings.  One justification referred to "racism by Caucasians and Uncle Tom Negroes."   One passage referenced “those filthy swine,”-when referring to the white population.  Everyone that was shot that day on the train was white.

One month after the shootings, Ferguson was declared mentally competent by the presiding Judge.   Despite this ruling, Ferguson's court-appointed defense attorney said he would still attempt to defend Ferguson on grounds of insanity.  Ferguson refused to cooperate with this attorney and after two months of being ignored by his client, the court appointed lawyer withdrew after Ferguson agreed to be represented by controversial and famous criminal defense attorney William Kunstler.

Kunstler’s proposed strategy also involved an insanity defense.  Kunstler’s proposed insanity defense contended that Ferguson's behavior could be tied to a study entitled Black Rage.  In this 1968 study, psychologists found that in order to function in society, African Americans often suppress feelings of intense anger over racism.  Kunstler would try to expand this thesis into a "black rage" insanity defense, arguing that continual racist mistreatment was the catalyst that caused Ferguson's delusions and paranoia to explode into violence.  This strategy, however, accepted that Ferguson was the killer and that he was mentally unsound.  Ferguson rejected both assumptions.  Ferguson decided to act as his own attorney, against the advice of his lawyers and the Judge.

Opening statements in the trial began on January 26, 1995.  Wearing a suit and speaking evenly, Ferguson argued to the jury that as the commuter train made its way out of New York City, he had dozed off and someone had stolen his gun and opened fire on the passengers.  "Mr. Ferguson was awakened by the gunfire and, amid the confusion, sought to protect himself," Ferguson said, speaking of himself in the third person.   Ferguson told the jury that the charges against him were a racist conspiracy.

Ferguson made a request to subpoena U.S. President Bill Clinton, because the president had personally commended the bravery of  the three men who subdued the killer at the time of the shootings.  The request was denied by the Judge. Ferguson also argued that the indictment against him contained 93 counts only because the shootings occurred in 1993.  "Had it been 1925," Ferguson said, "it would have been 25 counts."

On February 17, 1995, the jury convicted Ferguson of six counts of murder for the deaths of the six passengers who died from their injuries.  He was also convicted of attempted murder for his wounding of nineteen passengers.  The New York State Legislature had recently re-instituted the death penalty for murder, however, Ferguson would not face execution because his crimes occurred before the law was passed.  Noting the killer's "total lack of remorse," the Judge  sentenced Ferguson to six consecutive 25-years-to-life terms, one for each count of murder. The judge also gave Ferguson consecutive 25-year sentences for each of the 19 counts of attempted murder.  He is serving his sentence at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York.   His current earliest possible parole date is August 6, 2309.

Sources and more information:

Death On The L.I.R.R.: The Suspect; In Notes and Past of Accused, Portrait of Boiling Resentment, New York Times, December 9, 1993

A Tormented Life -- A special report; A Long Slide From Privilege Ends in Slaughter on a Train, New York Times, December 12, 1993

American Law and Legal Information, Notable Trials and Court Cases, Colin Ferguson Trial

Jury Finds Ferguson Guilty Of Slayings on the L.I.R.R., New York Times, February 18, 1995

Tagged in: murder shooting

Michael Buchanan is a practicing criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, Florida, with more than 25 years experience defending people accused of criminal misconduct. He is a former president of the Eighth Judicial Circuit chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He is a member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Read detailed professional biography here.