Ferguson fights for new trial

Wednesday, March 5, 2008 | 9:14 p.m. CST; updated 2:35 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — A hearing could be held as early as May 6 on Ryan Ferguson’s most recent motion for a new trial, his attorney said Wednesday.

A motion filed Monday by Valerie Leftwich, Ferguson’s new attorney, seeks a new trial on grounds that prior defense counsel was ineffective.


Nov. 15, 2005:

Ferguson’s attorneys filed a motion in Boone County Circuit Court seeking an acquittal or a new trial. The motion, which contained 16 complaints about the original trial, was denied.

Nov. 1, 2006:

Public Defender Ellen Flottman presented an appeal for Ferguson to the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals. On June 26, 2007 the court unanimously upheld Ferguson’s conviction.

Aug. 21, 2007:

The Missouri State Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. At that time, Flottman said Ferguson would ask for a secondary review on the grounds of ineffective counsel.

It also claims the state withheld important information from the defense about a possible suspect, misidentification of the men convicted and the reliability of testimony by the key witness.

Ferguson was convicted on Oct. 21, 2005 of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder in the 2001 strangling of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years.

Charles Erickson, who implicated himself and Ferguson in Heitholt’s murder, was also convicted and sentenced to 25 years.

Ferguson’s family has fought his conviction through the media and the courts ever since. This is the second attempt to gain a new trial. The family created, a Web site dedicated to his release; they cooperated with CBS on a “48 Hours” special titled “Dream Killer” about the case; and most recently, they posted a YouTube video of Columbia police interrogating Erickson.

“Considering an eyewitness has seen pictures in the newspaper and on television and has adamantly told the prosecutor that Ryan and Chuck were not the ones she saw in the parking lot, we feel very optimistic that Ryan will get a new trial,” Ferguson’s dad, Bill, said about the motion.

Leftwich’s 86-page document details reasons Ferguson should have a retrial. It cites several witnesses whose testimony could have affected the jury’s decision.

For example, the defense was not told that Detectives Bryan Leibhart and John Short interviewed Ronald Hudson who identified a different suspect in the murder, according to the report. In both interviews, Hudson said another man named Clarence Mabon told him he was involved in “the incident with the newspaper reporter.”

Hudson was in the Boone County jail serving a five-year sentence for tampering when police interviewed him, according to the motion. Hudson told his attorney, Rob Fleming, he had information on the murder and wanted to give it to law enforcement for a plea agreement on a pending robbery charge.

According to the motion:

  • The state didn’t tell Ferguson’s defense team — Charles Rogers, Kathryn Benson and Jeremy Weis — that Shawna Ornt, a state witness, told prosecutors that Ferguson and Erickson were not the men she saw the night of the murder, and that the men she saw in the Tribune parking lot looked older.
  • Ferguson’s original attorneys failed to subpoena a K-9 officer, Todd Alber, whose testimony would have contradicted Erickson’s about their whereabouts that night. Erickson testified that he and Ferguson went to a club after the murder, but Alber’s dog pursued a scent that ended at MU’s McDavid Hall.

The motion also raises questions about Erickson’s mental health and the reliability of his testimony. Ferguson’s former defense team failed to call Delaney Dean, a psychologist who had done two mental health evaluations of Erickson and found that he may have dysthymia, a depression disorder that leads to indecisiveness.

Boone County Jail records also indicate that Erickson was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Erickson generally described his memory as dreamlike, or containing “snapshots.” According to the motion, he told police and others that he may have “dreamed the whole thing.”

Ferguson’s original attorneys did not subpoena Eric Gathings or John James, Erickson’s cellmates whose statements figure prominently in the motion.

“On a daily basis Chuck would change his story,” Gathings is quoted as saying. “Some days he said he dreamed that he killed the reporter and believed it happened. Some days he said he didn’t do it. Every day was a new day for Chuck.”

James said Erickson reported having dreams that he and someone other than Ferguson committed the murder. James also noted that while Erickson was in prison, he often took the fall for others.

“When a situation would come up and someone was going down for what had happened, the guys in the pod would tell Chuck to take the fall and he would,” James is quoted as saying. “He was easy to talk into things like that.”

Had the original defense consulted an expert on confessions, they would have learned that vulnerable people may repeat information they’ve heard or read during an interrogation, the motion states. They may also be unable to supply crime details or provide missing evidence.

Erickson did testify that he read a newspaper article on Nov, 1, 2003, about Heitholt’s slaying, and then began thinking he might be involved. The article would have shown jurors how Erickson knew details of the crime, the motion declares.

Erickson was unable to lead police to a murder weapon or any new evidence.

Leftwich said she anticipates a three-day hearing before Judge Jodie Asel to provide witnesses to testify in support of the motion.

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