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My Lawyer, Myself: Self-Defense Often Fails

Suspect is own attorney in N.Y. murder case

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AS the defense attorney rises to cross examine the witness, several court guards snap to their feet, cross their arms menacingly atop their chests, and peer alertly his way.

Normally a lawyer in a rumpled brown jacket known for asking rambling questions would not attract such scrutiny. But in the case of the People v. Ferguson, the attorney and the defendant are one and the same, a man who witnesses say shot six dead and wounded 19 on the Long Island Rail Road in December 1993.

Colin Ferguson, who was tackled and arrested immediately after he allegedly sprayed bullets in a crowded commuter rail car, has told the jury he is being accused unjustly because he is black. But because he insists on arguing his case in court - and his inept legal efforts have bewildered even his own advisers - he is virtually paving his way to prison, analysts say.

``What it has done is assured his conviction of murder in the second degree on all counts,'' says Anthony Falanga, a judge who had been Mr. Ferguson's original attorney until he dismissed him. ``And it has diminished the opportunities for the victims and the families to get some kind of explanation of what happened.''

Representing oneself in court - called ``pro se'' in Latin legalese - is rare in criminal cases precisely because of the disastrous consequences it can have.

``Generally, it's a really poor idea to represent yourself,'' says Vivian Berger, a Columbia University professor who has worked as both a prosecutor and defense attorney. ``How can you get three years of law school and, you know, maybe a good five years of practice in a few hours every day in court? It's impossible.''

Ferguson's defense that another man stole his gun while he was sleeping is all the more difficult to sell to the jury because so many people in the crowded train have identified him as the killer.

As an attorney, Ferguson at times asks cogent questions of the witnesses, many of whom were shot in the incident. But at other times he baffles the witnesses and jury by trying to subpoena President Clinton and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, or by referring to himself in the third person.

``Did you see a defendant by the name of Mr. Ferguson there?'' he often asks witnesses.

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