Long Island

Judge Who Presided Over LIRR Massacre Trial from 1990s Dies at 84

Donald Belfi sentenced Colin Ferguson to 315 years in prison for his December 7, 1993 attack aboard a LIRR train that left six people dead and 19 injured

LIRR Massacre
Alan Raia/Newsday RM via Getty Images

A suburban New York judge who presided over the 1995 trial of the Long Island Rail Road massacre shooter, sentencing Colin Ferguson to 315 years in prison, has died.

Donald Belfi, a retired Nassau County Court judge, died Wednesday after a long illness, Newsday reported. He was 84.

On Dec. 7, 1993, a gunman opened fire on a train car leaving New York City. By the time passengers tackled Ferguson, his fusillade had left six people dead and 19 wounded.

Among the victims were the husband and son of Carolyn McCarthy, a former nurse who was inspired by the death of her husband and wounding of her son Kevin to launch a political career based largely on a gun control platform. The Democrat was elected to Congress and served from 1997 to 2015.

Though other massacres have far superseded it in terms of casualties, there are aspects of the railcar shooting that still make it stand out in the sad pantheon of rampages that have horrified the nation.

Belfi will always be remembered for his decision to allow Ferguson to represent himself in his murder trial.

Ferguson, who is black, made the unusual request after firing noted defense attorneys William Kuntsler and Ron Kuby, who wanted to proffer a "black rage" insanity defense. He wanted no part of claiming that racial persecution triggered the violence.

The defendant, a former stock clerk who had a long history of disputes with the state workers' compensation board, university officials and others, said at one point that he would rather be convicted than judged insane.

"He knew basically what he did and could understand right from wrong," Belfi told The Associated Press in an interview in 2014 for the 20th anniversary of the massacre.

The sentencing hearing for Ferguson took three days because so many victims and family members wanted to speak.

"In those three days, I don't think I was ever so moved in 30 years of being a judge," Belfi said in the AP interview.

When he imposed six consecutive life sentences, the courtroom erupted in applause. Ferguson remains in an upstate New York prison.

"Any other time, I would not like something like that happening in my courtroom," Belfi said. "But a trial of this magnitude and emotion, I thought it was almost appropriate."

Eric Belfi, one of the judge's five children, recalled to Newsday on Thursday how he and his siblings tried for years unsuccessfully to get their dad to write a book about his experiences on the bench.

"As you can imagine, the pressure of that case was tremendous on him," Eric Belfi said. "There were so many bizarre facts in that case . . . and he so wanted to make sure that everything done was perfectly appropriate and also wanted to make sure the defendant was treated fairly. That was the pressure, to make sure he got it right and, ultimately, the appellate court said he did. He always knew, even with all he did, that would be the moment he'd be remembered for."

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