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This Day in History, 1993: LIRR Shooting

On this day in 1993, twelve years ago, a man named Colin Ferguson opened fire on a Long Island Railroad commuter train from New York City, killing 6 and injuring 19. Other train passengers stopped the perpetrator by tackling and holding him down.

Colin Ferguson was a mentally unbalanced man from Jamaica who spent years on the West Coast before coming to New York in 1993. On December 7, he boarded a 5:33 p.m. train out of Penn Station carrying an automatic pistol, and as the train pulled into Garden City, Ferguson began running down the aisle and shooting passengers at random.

Famous defense attorney William Kunstler initially represented Ferguson, but his strategy of arguing that Ferguson was not responsible due to "black rage" infuriated even Ferguson himself. After firing Kunstler, Ferguson decided to act as his own lawyer.

In the resulting trial, which took place in January and February 1996, Ferguson opened by claiming that he was not the shooter. He argued that a white man had stolen his gun and shot the commuters, then pinned the crime on Ferguson. But he later changed his story, stating that a man who shared Ferguson's name and facial features was the real killer.

When Ferguson asked nearly all of the surviving victims, in turn, to identify the killer under oath, they each pinned the blame squarely on him. After the judge denied Ferguson's request that President Clinton and Governor Cuomo testify, Ferguson decided to forego his own right to testify. On February 17, 1996, the jury convicted Ferguson of 6 counts of murder and 22 counts of attempted murder. He received six life terms and will not be eligible for parole.

(Reference: Above taken from This Day in History)

A few interesting follow-ups from that incident:

1. Ferguson was clearly not playing with a full deck, as evidenced by his behavior as his own lawyer. I remember a lot of people asking the psychiatrist who interviewed Ferguson how he could possibly have declared Ferguson sane. His reasonable reply was that he never said Ferguson was sane; he said that Ferguson was competent to stand trial, meaning that he did possess a clear understanding of right and wrong.

2. Long Island nurse Carolyn McCarthy lost her husband Dennis in the shooting, and her son Kevin was partially paralyzed by a shot to the head. McCarthy ended up running for Congress as a gun control activist. She continues to represent New York's Fourth Congressional District, currently in her fifth term.

3. While Ferguson was on trial and in jail, somehow or other he ended up calling NYU Law School, where my younger brother was a student at the time, and was connected to him. Still not sure how or why that happened.


That question comes up a lot. Sanity before the law is complex, but it absolutely doesn't mean what most people mean when they say 'sane'. It means that you knew you should not have done [name of crime] *even though* the CIA broadcast instructions from Mars telling you you should, not that you aren't hearing instructions beamed from Mars. Not sure I agree with that definition, but it serves.
Though mitigated by the horror of the crime itself, the Ferguson trial was some great theater thanks to Ferguson's antics. And Rep. McCarthy's story is a personal favorite, as well.
Well, I'm glad my birthday has some notable event other than the attack on Pearl Harbor. :->

BTW, I think competency to stand trial is not merely "know right from wrong" (which I thought was a sanity issue) but also "can participate in his own defense."
If I had found a famous poisoning incident, I would have gone with that in your honor. :-)
Given that today is also my birthday, I'm also grateful Michael didn't go with the obvious.

But a fair amount of other things happened on this date. There was actually once a Jeopardy! category of "December 7th"; had I been on the show that day I would've been severely tempted to buzz in and announce that I was going to try to run the category without seeing any clues. Would've succeeded too, by saying "What are, in no particular order, Pearl Harbor, George Bush, Delaware, Apollo 17, and Larry Bird?"

PH is obvious. At the time, the first Bush had recently made a significant gaffe in a talk at a veterans' gathering by saying Pearl Harbor had happened on September 7th, Delaware was the first state to adopt the Constitution in 1787, Apollo 17, the last manned moon mission to date, blasted off shortly after midnight in 1972 (a cool birthday present; it was originally scheduled for the 6th, but holds delayed it to the 7th. First night launch too), and it's also Larry Bird's birthday. The last would've been the only one I wasn't sure of; Johnny Bench also shares the birthday.
Pearl Harbor is one that I might go with again next year, for the milestone anniversary. But I do often try for the unremembered as well.

Would Jeopardy! have let you gotten away with that? I wonder...
My birthday is today too, and I honestly never get tired of the Pearl Harbor Day references. I'm not a war buff or anything. I just enjoy referring to my birthday as a date which will live in infamy. :)

I'm also fond of how December 7, 1995, is when Galileo reached Jupiter. I was excited about that for all six years of its journey. Because, hey, that's my birthday! I was 11 when it launched.

Can't believe Galileo got to Jupiter a decade ago. I feel old.

December 2016

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