If I ever get in serious trouble, I’m going to hope I have somebody like Bill Ferguson on my side.
You may recognize that name, though it’s been a while since it has been in the paper. Bill Ferguson is the father of Ryan Ferguson, and Ryan Ferguson is one of the two young men convicted of murdering Kent Heitholt back in 2001.
Bill Ferguson came to see me this week. He’d run across a column I wrote back in February in which I wondered whether anybody was investigating Kenny Hulshof after Kenny’s prosecutorial conduct was strongly criticized by a judge. That was in another murder case, one that ended with the court order freeing a wrongly convicted defendant.
Kenny didn’t prosecute Ryan Ferguson. Kevin Crane did. It’s Judge Crane now, of course. He succeeded on the Circuit Court bench Judge Ellen, who presided over Ryan Ferguson’s trial in October 2005 and later retired.
Mr. Ferguson argues, and thinks he can prove, that his son’s prosecution was also unlawfully flawed. I have no idea whether he’ll be able to do that to a court’s satisfaction, but I have no doubt he’ll keep trying.
“If I don’t push it, nothing is going to happen,” Mr. Ferguson told me. He has been pushing since his son’s arrest in 2004. Along the way, he has learned a lot about the criminal justice system and a lot about apparent flaws in the investigation of the murder. He remains unshaken in his belief in his son’s innocence.
Last month, the Court of Appeals turned down an argument that the jury in the trial was improperly selected. Ryan Ferguson’s latest lawyer said she will appeal that rejection to the state Supreme Court. Bill Ferguson has his hopes pinned more on a different appeal. That one is awaiting a ruling by Circuit Court Judge Jodie Asel.
In July, Judge Asel heard arguments and saw new evidence on the issues of whether then-Prosecuting Attorney Crane disclosed to the defense before trial, as the law requires, evidence that would have favored the defendant (“exculpatory” is the term) and whether the defense attorneys did an adequate job for their client.
Mr. Ferguson thinks the answer in both instances is no. He has spent much of the past four years and upward of $200,000 trying to prove that. He has changed lawyers twice. He has become his own investigator.
After Mr. Ferguson called me, I went back and reread much of the coverage of the murder and the trial. I was reminded what a strange case it was.
You may recall that Kent Heitholt, the sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune, was beaten and strangled to death in the parking lot of the paper after he left work about 2 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001. For more than two years, investigators were stumped. Then Chuck Erickson, a Rock Bridge High School classmate of Ryan Ferguson, began telling friends that he’d dreamed he might have been involved. That dream turned into a nightmare for the Fergusons, as repeated police interrogations resulted in an eventual confession by Erickson that he and Ryan Ferguson had committed murder.
There never was any physical evidence linking either defendant to the crime, no fingerprint or DNA matches. No murder weapon was found. The only eye witnesses were two janitors who saw two men near Heitholt’s car. One of them later told Crane (and testified at the hearingin July) that the men she saw were not the defendants. The other, an ex-con, first said he couldn’t recognize them because of bad lighting but in the trial pointed to Ryan Ferguson.
Chuck Erickson wound up being sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ryan Ferguson is serving 40 years.
If you go to the Web site Bill Ferguson maintains, FreeRyanFerguson.com, you’ll find a collection of videos and statements that make his case. You can see how Chuck Erickson’s story changed under police questioning. You can hear one janitor say Crane tried to intimidate her into identifying the defendants and that neither he nor the defense attorneys asked her at trial whether she saw them. There’s a lot more.
To me, it’s disturbing material. To Bill Ferguson, it should be enough to free his son. He has learned enough, however, not to be too hopeful. He puts the odds that Judge Asel will order a new trial at about 50/50.
If these appeals fail, there’ll be more. If all else fails, there’s the Innocence Project, which takes on the cases of the wrongfully convicted.
Meanwhile, Bill and Leslie Ferguson visit their son every week in the maximum security prison near Jefferson City. Now 24 and a prisoner for five years, Ryan is doing well, his father says.
When I told Mr. Ferguson I was impressed by his efforts, he shrugged.
“What else could I do?”
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.