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From the archives: Kunstler seeks to defend Ferguson

This story was originally published in Newsday on March 1, 1994.

Radical lawyer William Kunstler announced yesterday that he and his partner Ronald Kuby are willing to represent Colin Ferguson, the Brooklyn man charged in a shooting spree on the Long Island Rail Road that left six dead and 19 wounded.

Kunstler, who met with Ferguson for 45 minutes at Nassau County jail, is expected to file a notice of the change this week with County Court Judge Donald Belfi in Mineola, who will rule on the request.

"It's not at all clear that the judge is going to appoint us," Kuby said in an interview later. But he said that, if it's approved, he and Kunstler would pursue a psychiatric defense for Ferguson.

Kuby said Ferguson called the office three weeks ago, seeking help. Kunstler spoke to him last week and agreed yesterday to take the case.

Talking to reporters at the jail, Kunstler said Ferguson had had psychiatric problems in the past, but he declined to say whether he had ever sought treatment. "I was not prepared for such a soft-spoken man," Kunstler said. "I expected a more bombastic person."

Ferguson, 36, has been indicted on 93 counts of murder, attempted murder, assault, weapons charges and civil rights charges in connection with the Dec. 7 shootings. Police labeled the incident a bias crime because of handwritten notes that Ferguson was carrying in which he talked of his hatred for whites, Asians, and "uncle Tom blacks."

Ferguson, who is black, has complained about his court-appointed lawyer, Anthony Falanga, who is white, saying he would not cooperate with Falanga and wanted a lawyer of his own choice. He initially asked Colin Moore, a black civil-rights lawyer from Brooklyn, to defend him. But Moore said he couldn't take the case because of an unspecified conflict.

Kunstler said Ferguson wasn't bothered by the fact that he and Kuby are white. "I told him you got two honkies sitting here, - what's you're feeling?" Kunstler said. He said Ferguson replied, " 'I want you,' - so that's it." Kunstler said that Ferguson lost 20 to 30 pounds in jail.

Falanga said yesterday that he had no problem relinquishing the case. "Every defendant should be comfortable with their attorney and it's been obvious that he hasn't been comfortable with me," he said.

"These are the kinds of cases we take," Kuby said. He said Ferguson had been made into "an outcast, a pariah who is being made to pay for all the sins of society. The reality is that these kinds of cases bring out the worst in the legal system. It's very difficult to get a fair trial."

Meanwhile, a fourth victim has filed suit against the LIRR and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, alleging that the railroad failed to provided a safe place for commuters and was negligent in training employees to prevent such tragedies.

John Apsel, 36, of West Islip, said he was struck first by two bullets and then five minutes later by a third as Ferguson backtracked through the train. He suffered injuries to his spleen, kidneys, diaphragm, lungs and ribs. A mechanic's helper for a Manhattan real estate firm, he has not returned to work since.

With Michael Alexander

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