UPDATE: Ferguson denied new trial

Monday, June 15, 2009 | 1:03 p.m. CDT; updated 2:13 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 15, 2009
Ryan Ferguson's appeal for a new trial in the killing of Kent Heitholt, a Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor, was denied Monday by Boone County Circuit Judge Jodie Asel.

COLUMBIA — Boone County Circuit Judge Jodie Asel denied Ryan Ferguson’s appeal of his 2005 murder conviction in an opinion released Monday, refusing to grant Ferguson a new trial.

Asel rejected Ferguson’s claims that his original legal team was ineffective during his trial and that Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, who was prosecutor in 2005, withheld evidence.

Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in connection with the 2001 killing of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Asel’s ruling is not official for 30 days, after which Ferguson could appeal the decision to the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals

Public defender Valerie Leftwich, Ferguson’s attorney, said she wasn't sure whether she would ask Asel to reconsider the case in light of new facts or wait and appeal to the Western District.

“I’m disappointed with the outcome and that it took a year to just sign off on the prosecutor’s proposed findings,” Leftwich said. “It’s very difficult to win at the trial court level,” she added.

The decision came almost 11 months after a three-day evidentiary hearing that focused on conduct by lawyers on both sides of the original trial. The state’s principal witness, Ferguson’s high school classmate Chuck Erickson, also figured significantly in the proceedings.

Erickson pleaded guilty and testified at Ferguson’s trial that the two of them, both 17 at the time of the crime, killed Heitholt. Erickson’s credibility was an important point in the appeal.

Asel rejected Ferguson’s claims that Crane failed to disclose that another man had claimed to be involved in the murder and that a key witness, Shawna Ornt, had told him that Ferguson and Erickson were not the people she had seen at the crime scene.

Asel wrote that the man who told police he’d overheard an acquaintance claim involvement in the murder was “grasping at straws to get a better deal from the State.” His story didn’t make sense and would not have affected the outcome of Ferguson’s trial, Asel said.

Likewise, she discounted Ornt’s testimony at the July 2008 hearing.Ornt, who worked for a cleaning service at the Tribune at the time of the murder, testified that she had told Crane that Ferguson and Erickson were not the people she saw by Heitholt’s car, where the victim’s body was found.

But Crane and Bill Haws, an investigator in his office at the time, said that Ornt had said simply that she couldn’t identify the people she saw.

Asel wrote: “This Court finds Ms. Ornt’s testimony not credible. … This Court finds Kevin Crane and Bill Haws’ testimony to be credible.”

Asel also found that decisions made by Ferguson’s original legal team – Charles Rogers, Jeremy Weis and Kathryn Benson – were either sound trial strategy or at least not unsound to a degree that would have changed the outcome of the case.

Ferguson had contended that his lawyers should have called Dallas Mallory to testify at trial. Erickson testified that he saw Mallory shortly after committing the crime. At one time, Mallory told police that he had seen Erickson that night, but in a later affidavit, he said that he had only said this after being intimidated by police.

Asel said that the decision not to call Mallory to testify at trial was sound because his credibility would have been called into question by police witnesses. She also found “no credible evidence” that police or prosecutors intimidated Mallory.

Similarly, Asel ruled that testimony by three men who spoke with Erickson in the Boone County Jail would not have significantly affected the case. The men said that Erickson vacillated about his involvement in the crime and sometimes said he might have dreamed it. Asel wrote that the effect of their testimony would have been “minimal” and “minor and equivocal.”

Ferguson’s lawyers were also justified in not calling a pair of experts to testify, Asel stated. One – a doctor who evaluated Erickson’s mental state – wouldn’t have aided Ferguson’s case, Asel said. And testimony by another – an expert in false confessions – would not have been admissible, she ruled.

Richard Leo testified at the 2008 hearing that Erickson’s confession had some of the hallmarks of a false confession, but he relied only on the videotaped confession, not on any interviews with Erickson or the detectives involved. Further, Asel said, this testimony wouldn’t be allowed because it infringed on the jury’s role of evaluating the credibility of witnesses.

Ferguson’s father, Bill, said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling. “It seems to be an unwritten law that you never overturn at (the trial court) level,” he said.

In a separate appeal, a judge ruled Jan. 9 that an unusual jury selection policy in Ferguson’s original trial did not prevent him from having a fair trial. The appeal reached the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in May.


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Susan Day June 15, 2009 | 7:29 p.m.

Kudos to the Missourian for the excellent coverage of this tragic story. Although we live in an obvious corupt county where justice means nothing to those wishing to further a political career, my heart goes out to the family. Please continue to pray for the truth to be heard for them! SD

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Charles Dudley Jr June 15, 2009 | 9:05 p.m.

From everything I have heard this is just so wrong.

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C Mulligan July 28, 2009 | 11:04 p.m.

I just saw Ryan's story on ID tonight and was compelled to get online to see where the case was now. As a parent of 4 children - 2 boys, 2 girls - myself, my heart goes out to Ryan's family. I just cannot imagine dealing with something that is so obviously wrong and yet still being unable to protect your kids. Of course, my heart hurts the most for Ryan. What the police, prosecutor, jurors, system, etc. have done to him is just unbelievable. What bothers me the most is that this keeps being pushed off to the "higher" court system and no one wants to admit anyone else was wrong. Even the jurors, after seeing all the follow up, can't admit that maybe they made a mistake! Certainly, someone will let go of their arrogrance and do the right thing. Our prayers are with the family!!!!

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Jan Davis December 4, 2009 | 10:46 p.m.

My prayers are with the Ferguson family. I cannot believe this could happen in USA. What happened to reasonable doubt? So, a troubled young man can have a dream that he and a friend killed a person? have not a shred of evidence and has to be fed knowledge of the crime, yet still be convicted? Don't know how Mr. Crane sleeps at night. They should not have to admit they made a mistake because this should never have beel allowed to happen at all. It's time to get sensible and get this young innocent man home. Now we are sending people to prison based on dream???

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Jan Davis March 3, 2010 | 11:37 a.m.

Mr Crane if you aren't too busy convicting people on dreams and what they read in the paper, I hope you read the paper. I hope you read the many comments and I hope you realize that there is going to be a public outcry for justice and your mishandling of this case. You were so involved in stepping up that ladder to success that you cared nothing for the lives of two innocent young men. You had no compassion for Charles Erickson, and even if it was not your job to do so, just human compassion alone called for you to try to get this kid some help. You failed him, and you certainly failed Ryan Ferguson. Is that road to success that important to you? Does destroying lives, families mean nothing to you? Do you honestly believe that troubled young man in that interrogation office committed this horrific crime? I would like to think you believed it, otherwise the only other assumption is that you just didn't care, as long as you got a conviction. Unfortunately, I believe you just didn't care. You have never heard of a false confession? Really? How did you get as far as you have with your career? Who did you know that would help place you in power? You showed lack of ethics, honor, and extreme lack of compassion. I hope people DEMAND your resignation. You do not and never should have been allowed to hold any type office "serving the public". You did not serve the public when you took that mentally disturbed young man and allowed him to be told all the facts of a crime he didn't commit. You have certainly, accomplished one thing. You, and you alone, have destroyed any and all faith I ever held for our judicial system. I no longer believe in reasonable doubt, innocent until proven guilty, or telling the truth will set you free. Telling the truth landed Ryan in prison with a 40 yr sentence, being mentally ill landed Charles Erickson in prison for 12 years. You failed these kids, and you failed a lot of Americans in doing so.

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Jan Davis March 5, 2010 | 11:22 a.m.

I am so very pleased to know that the new developments in this case will take it out of the hands of Boone County. I hope further, that Mr. Crane will be forced to take the stand and answer a few questions himself. Are there no laws or punishment for people like him that will lie, coerce, and do anything regardless of how unethical, dishonorable, and lack of honor that he showed during this trial? If so, I hope they convict him on any and all charges available to them. He lied to get a conviction, and he did not and never has cared about the lives he ruined. I have seen a couple of comments asking that people get "off" their criticism of him. I will not hesitate to stand by my opinion of him. I believe in honor. I believe in honesty. I believe in ethics, and just good old fashioned morals. He does not possess any of those qualities. So, no, I will not stop. I do not even see that I am bashing him in any way, I am doing what he did NOT do, I am telling the truth. He took an oath to serve the public, and abused that power in so many ways it defies the imagination. I don't know how many others have been the victim of his dishonorable ways, but I do know two that were certainly abused by his power, and that is Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson.

Chuck needed help and didn't get it. He may never get the help he needs and deserves. Therapy and medication could go a long way to help him with his delusions. He may never be "cured" but he could receive some help. He actually believes in his demented mind that he had something to do with this crime. That alone, after reading the evidence, and the shameful way the prosecution treated him, should have allowed someone there to show him some compassion, and if it was not in their power to order him to obtain some help, it certainly should have been recommended.

If Chuck Erickson was my son, I would do everything and anything it took to get him help.

If Ryan was my son, I would do exactly what the Ferguson's are doing, fight and continue fighting for justice. Their son is innocent, and they know it and the public knows it. More and more, the public is becoming aware of what these detectives did to these two kids, and as more and more people get involved, I believe they will have to answer for what they have done. I don't know if this means they will lose their jobs, be charged with a crime themselves, I don't know. I do know their credibility will fly out the window. I think it already has.

Ryan, we are fighting for you, and we are fighting for justice. I know it takes or seems to take forever, but this will be behind you someday. I believe in you, and when you are free, I believe in your ability to put in behind you, and go on with your life. Whatever path that takes you, it will be taken as a free man, as you deserve.
Thank You
Jan Davis

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