State wraps up Ferguson hearing by calling original prosecutor

Friday, July 18, 2008 | 6:05 p.m. CDT; updated 10:04 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 15, 2009

COLUMBIA — In the final day of a hearing for a retrial for Ryan Ferguson, the state called the case’s original prosecutor and two investigators with the prosecutor’s office. Ferguson’s attorney wrapped up the plaintiff’s case in the morning with testimony from an expert in police interrogation and false confessions, who said he doubted the validity of Charles “Chuck” Erickson’s confession, which first implicated Ferguson.

Ferguson was convicted in 2005 of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery for the 2001 killing of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt after Erickson told police he and Ferguson committed the murder.

Ferguson is trying to prove that he had inadequate defense in the original trial and therefore should get a retrial. Ryan’s father, Bill Ferguson, said he expects to know the outcome of the hearing by the end of the year.

In testimony this morning, expert witness Richard Leo, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said in his opinion Erickson’s confession was false. Leo drew his conclusion after watching footage of Columbia police interrogating Erickson and reviewing other documents the plaintiff’s lawyers previously provided him.

He said that after a suspect offers a confession, interrogators should shift the focus of their questioning to try to elicit information that would help prove whether the confession is true.

“The goal of the police should be to get the truth, not to get a confession,” Leo said.

He said police should gather details from the suspect that were not released to the public from the confessor, or the confessor should be able to provide investigators with new clues.

Leo said watching interrogation videos of Erickson showed that Columbia police told Erickson information the murderer should have already known, such as the weapon used and the location of Heitholt’s car, which was parked in a lot behind the Tribune’s offices.

“I do think this reflects improper techniques,” Leo said.

He said that giving Erickson information that he didn’t already know could contaminate the evidence and that Erickson could have created a narrative around those facts.

Leo also said one kind of false confession (a persuaded or internalized false confession) can take place when the confessor begins to believe he or she actually committed the act.

Erickson used speculative language when he was interrogated, such as “maybe,” “probably” and “I must have done it then,” when he was making statements to police, which Leo said can indicate an internalized false confession.

“It has the hallmarks of a persuaded, false confession,” Leo said.

Columbia police Detective John Short conducted the police’s first interview with Erickson before he was videotaped. Leo pointed out that the police report about this interrogation relied on Short’s memory, so the only records Leo considered truly accurate were the videotapes of the interrogations.

Stephanie Morrell, Boone County assistant prosecutor, pointed out that other police reports indicate Erickson told friends before he spoke to police that he told the cleaning woman to get help, information that was not released to the public.

“That’s the police’s representation,” Leo said.

Shawna Ornt, who worked as a cleaner at the Tribune at the time of Heitholt’s murder, testified in the 2005 trial that she saw two young white males when she found Heitholt’s body and that one of the men told her to get help. She said Wednesday at the hearing that she had told then-Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane that neither of the men she saw was Erickson or Ferguson. Crane would have been legally obligated to disclose the information to the defense team, who testified Thursday that they had not received that information from him.

On Friday, Morrell called Crane, who is now a Boone County Circuit Court judge; Bill Haws, an investigator with the Boone County Prosecutor’s Office; and Ben White, who was a Columbia Police Department detective at the time of the crime and an investigator with the Boone County Prosecutor’s Office at the time of the trial.

All three testified that Ornt told them she had seen pictures of Ferguson and Erickson in the Columbia Daily Tribune, but she could not identify whether either of them was the man she saw.

“She told us up front she couldn’t make an identification,” Haws said. “We didn’t have to ask her.”

Crane also said he had not heard anything about Ronald Hudson, who testified Wednesday that he told someone from the prosecutor’s office that an acquaintance had told Hudson that he committed the crime.

Ferguson’s attorney produced 2002 e-mails to Dan Knight and Mark Morasch of the prosecutor’s office that Morasch had met with Hudson about the information.

Morrell also called Columbia police Detective Bryan Liebhart, who interviewed Dallas Mallory soon after Erickson’s arrest. Erickson told police he and Ferguson saw Mallory shortly after killing Heitholt, at which point Erickson told him they had “beat someone down.”

There were two police reports from March 10, 2004, concerning Mallory: one written by Detective Jim Harmon, which stated that Mallory had not seen Erickson downtown that night, and the other written by Detective Jeff Westbrook, which stated that Mallory had seen him.

Liebhart met with Mallory a week later. In Liebhart’s report, he said Mallory’s information matched what he had previously told investigators.

Liebhart testified that he could not say which statement his report referred to because he could not recall what Mallory said when the two spoke.


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