On March 22, 1995, Colin Ferguson was sentenced to life in prison. Actually, prosecutor George Peck said, “200 years to life — whichever comes first.”
It was on December 7, 1993 that a gunman opened fire on a Long Island Rail Road train car filled with commuters who were traveling between New York City’s Penn Station and Hicksville. Colin Ferguson, 36, stood up and walked calmly down the aisle, shooting everyone he passed with a 9mm handgun.
By the time he paused to reload and was tackled by terrified passengers, Ferguson had killed six people and wounded 19 more.
Ferguson was a well-educated, unemployed immigrant from an upper middle-class Jamaican family, and his surreal defense would strain debates what is considered “sane” in an American courtroom.
Despite having a train full of witnesses, Ferguson denied that he was the killer, and claimed that an unidentified white man had done the shooting and then escaped.
One month after the shootings, on January 7, 1994, Ferguson was declared mentally competent to stand trial. After refusing to cooperate with his court-appointed attorney, Ferguson agreed to be represented by controversial civil-rights attorneys William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby.
The men attempted to move forward with a “black rage” defense — but Ferguson rejected their claims that he was the killer and mentally unstable.
Ferguson then decided to act as his own attorney, against the advice of his lawyers and Nassau County District Judge Donald Belfi.
Opening statements in the trial began on January 26, 1995, in Mineola, New York. Ferguson said that as the commuter train made its way out of New York City, he had dozed off. He claimed that someone had stolen his gun and opened fire on the passengers. He told the jury that the charges against him were a racist conspiracy.
But Ferguson’s victims, including Elizabeth Aviles, bravely rebutted him on the stand. When Ferguson pressed Aviles to describe the gunman, she responded angrily, “I saw you shooting everyone on the train, OK?”
Noting the killer’s “total lack of remorse,” Judge Belfi sentenced Ferguson to six consecutive 25-years-to-life terms, one for each count of murder. The judge also gave Ferguson 25-year sentences for each of 19 counts of attempted murder — for a total of 475 years in prison!
But prison terms for multiple convictions of attempted murder are limited by New York law to a total of 50 years — for a total of up to 200 years. His victims and their families cheered as the sentence was read.
Ferguson appealed his conviction, asking for legal counsel this time. But in December 1998, the New York Court of Appeals refused Ferguson’s request for a new trial.
Ferguson, now 55, is serving his sentence at the Upstate Correctional Facility in Malone, New York. He will be eligible for parole in 2309.
Watch ID Films: Terror on a Train to learn more about the case.