A year ago lawyer William Kunstler announced that a form of insanity called "black rage" had driven his client, Colin Ferguson, to murder six Long Island Rail Road commuters in December 1993. It was a pathetic gimmick that would have served neither his client nor justice. But amazingly, that turned out to be one of the less bizarre aspects of the surreal odyssey that was the Ferguson trial.
On December 9, 1994, Nassau County Judge Donald E. Belfi ignored the findings of a defense psychiatrist and found Ferguson fit to stand trial. Defying common sense, Judge Belfi declared that Ferguson could assist in his own defense, even though the defendant, whose coherence waxed and waned, refused to cooperate with his lawyers.
Then Judge Belfi allowed Ferguson to act as his own attorney. The judge granted Ferguson his request for $300 to hire a private investigator to track down the white man who Ferguson said was the true killer. (Belfi did, however, deny Ferguson permission to subpoena his would-be star witnesses—President Clinton and former Governor Cuomo.)
As Ferguson examined witnesses—including people he had shot and wounded—he asked pointless, rambling questions. His fantasies flowered to encompass the police and the prosecutor, whom he accused of a racist conspiracy to frame him. He said that the Jewish Defense League was planning to kill him in prison: "The Jeffrey Dahmer incident was not a coincidence. He was set up as a prelude against me. There’s a conspiracy to murder me if I’m convicted." Judge Belfi, who presided patiently day after day, finally told the defendant on February 16 that unless he could produce his own witnesses, the jury would begin deliberating the next day.
On February 17 the jury convicted Ferguson on 6 counts of second-degree murder and 19 counts of attempted murder. Ferguson then brought the case full circle, announcing that he will appeal the verdict with the help of William Kunstler—who will argue that his client was never competent to stand trial in the first place. (Kunstler did, however, declare that "black rage is no longer an issue in this case.")
A little perspective is in order about who is most to blame for this farce. It was Judge Belfi who, by allowing Ferguson to stand trial, made a mockery of forensic psychiatry and who, by allowing Ferguson to defend himself, made a mockery of his courtroom. When the issue of competence comes around once more, Colin Ferguson is not the only one who should come up for review.