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From the archives: Judge declares Ferguson competent for trial - and he'll defend himself

This story was originally published in Newsday on Dec. 10, 1994.

Over strenuous objections from defense attorneys, a Nassau County judge yesterday declared Colin Ferguson competent to stand trial and to represent himself, setting the stage for a face-to-face showdown between the accused Long Island Rail Road gunman and survivors of the shooting.

Told he'd be in a position to cross-examine prosecution witnesses as early as next week during pre-trial hearings on the admissibility of evidence, Ferguson - who has no legal training - said, "I'm looking forward to that."

The trial is scheduled to start Jan. 17.

After making sure Ferguson understood the risks of acting as his own lawyer, Judge Donald E. Belfi granted Ferguson's request with great reluctance. "I think it's going to be a very unfortunate situation, a very difficult trial," Belfi said. "This is a very difficult case. I think it is a case that cries out for representation by able counsel as you already have, and my own personal advice to you is I think you are doing a foolish thing."

But a clearly elated Ferguson told the court in Mineola he would make a "formidable opponent" to prosecutor George Peck. "I believe I can prove my innocence. I believe that I can be acquitted and I believe I can do a better job than just about anyone else. I believe integrity is more important than just raw expertise."

During a question-and-answer session with the judge about his ability to defend himself, Ferguson asked to be unshackled during the trial so that he could compete with Peck's "articulate body movements." Ferguson also complained that he wasn't receiving the minimum amount of time jail inmates are allowed to spend in the law library.

Lt. Robert Anderson, a spokesman for the Nassau County Jail, said inmates generally get at least two hours a week in the library. Because Ferguson is in protective custody, the library must be emptied of other inmates before he can use it. But Anderson said Ferguson would be allowed "more than ample time in the law library to prepare his case."

In an ironic twist, Ferguson asked his attorneys William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby to remain as advisers should he have questions of law. He requested from them a copy of "Fundamentals of Trial Techniques" by Thomas A. Mauet, Donald G. Casswell and Gordon P. Macdonald. And despite previously accusing Kunstler and Kuby of conspiring, among other things, to murder him, Ferguson yesterday said, "Their ability, for the record, indicates there is no one better."

Kuby's first action as an adviser was to help Ferguson strike the insanity defense that he and Kunstler had previously entered. The defense team had planned to mount a much-publicized "black rage" insanity defense, contending that Ferguson snapped after years of racial mistreatment.

Ferguson is charged with killing 6 passengers and injuring 19 in a 93-count indictment that accuses him of murder and assault and weapons possession.

Ferguson now has until next week to decide whether he will try to prove that he wasn't on the train and that someone else did the shooting.

Though police say Ferguson admitted to the shooting immediately afterward, more recently, he has maintained his innocence. He has said alternately that he was not on the train, and that he was on the train but did not do the shooting. One of his alleged statements to police immediately after the shooting was, "I've done a bad thing," Kuby said. Thomas Demaria, a psychologist at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside who specializes in trauma, said that any survivor who testifies before Ferguson can expect to experience some of the same emotions he or she felt on the train car.

"They will be kind of trapped on the witness stand, not allowed to leave, and reenacting the whole event," said Demaria, who helped organize therapy groups for some survivors. "They may experience powerlessness, lack of control - some of the same things they experienced on the train."

Kevin McHugh, who said he still feels apprehension when he boards the LIRR to go home each evening, said he realizes that testifying would be arduous.

He knows, however, precisely what he would say.

"I do know that I saw him there turning left and right and shooting people point-blank in the head," McHugh said. "Whether it's him cross-examining me, or [William] Kunstler, that's what I would have to say."

Jill Michel, who received a flesh wound from a gunshot to her head while riding the 5:33, said she knows testifying won't be pleasant. But she said, "I will do whatever I have to do to make sure he spends the rest of his life in jail."

Yesterday, the father of one of the murder victims said he was glad Ferguson had been ruled competent. Just as the one-year anniversary vigil at the Merillon Avenue train station Wednesday provided a sense of closure for some survivors, the father, Jacob Locicero, said a speedy trial would be the best resolution to the case.

"It's just as well that it's faced now. I think people have a tendency to forget and I think this should be resolved in a timely fashion," said Locicero, the father of Amy Federici, 27, an interior designer who was heading home to Mineola when she was fatally shot in the neck during the Dec. 7, 1993, massacre.

"I believe in a country with law and due process," Locicero added. "We wouldn't want to take that away from him, even though he took it away from my daughter."

Like Locicero, assistant district attorney Peck said he was sure Belfi would keep order in the court. He was also confident that the victims who do testify would be able to handle another face-to-face meeting with Ferguson.

"The defendant has a right to represent himself and that means questioning victims," Peck said. "If that right were interfered with, then these whole proceedings would be a nullity and the victims would have to go through this procedure twice." And, Peck predicted Ferguson would be less contentious. "Now that he [Ferguson] is acting as his own lawyer, he's going to behave a little bit differently."

But Kuby, who continues to insist Ferguson is insane and incapable of assisting in his own defense, said the trial would be a horror show. "This is not a man capable of rationally accepting and evaluating information he is given," Kuby told the court.

"It's going to be an absolute specatacle," Kuby said afterwards. "The idea of it is so horrible to contemplate that it staggers the imagination because Colin Ferguson genuinely believes he didn't commit the crime, he didn't do the shooting and everybody knows that he did."

Both Kuby and Locicero were reminded of the old adage that "a person who defends himself has a fool for a client." But in this case, Kuby said, "it goes beyond that because Mr. Ferguson is making an utterly irrational decision for a totally crazy reason."

With Sylvia Adcock and Joe Haberstroh

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