COLUMBIA — Ryan Ferguson has filed an appeal of his 2005 murder conviction, asking the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals to reverse a recent ruling by a Boone County judge that denied him a new trial.
On June 12, Boone County Circuit Judge Jodie Asel rejected Ferguson’s claims that his original legal team was ineffective 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 and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Ferguson’s high school classmate, Charles Erickson, pleaded guilty and testified at Ferguson’s trial that the two of them – both 17 at the time of the crime – killed Heitholt.
Ferguson is now being represented by Janet Thompson, who typically handles capital murder appeals for the public defender’s office.
The court will consider the issues raised during a three-day evidentiary hearing held in Boone County in July 2008. Ferguson’s appeal argues that Crane failed to tell the defense that another man had claimed to be involved in the murder and that a key witness, Shawna Ornt, said Ferguson and Erickson were not the people she’d seen at the crime scene.
In her ruling, 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.” Asel also said Ornt’s testimony at the July hearing was not credible.
The appellate court will also scrutinize decisions made by Ferguson’s original legal team – Charles Rogers, Jeremy Weis and Kathryn Benson – not to call certain witnesses or investigate certain leads. For example, Ferguson’s appeal claims his lawyers should have called a false confessions expert such as Richard Leo, who testified at the July hearing that Erickson’s confession to police bore some of the hallmarks of a false confession.
The appellate court can decide whether it wants to hear oral arguments. Given the issues involved, Thompson said, she anticipated the court would.
But that stage is still many months and miles of paperwork away. By the time the various deadlines for filing end and the case is submitted to the court for a decision, it will likely be the spring of 2010, Thompson estimated.
In a separate appeal, a judge ruled on 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.