COLUMBIA — Two men largely responsible for putting Ryan Ferguson in jail in 2005 may now be the same ones getting him out.
Jerry Trump told a jury then that he had seen Ferguson at the scene of the crime moments after the 2001 slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt. Charles Erickson told the same jury he and Ferguson beat and strangled Heitholt to death.
Now, both Trump and Erickson say they lied.
On Tuesday, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green will listen to these and other arguments attesting to Ferguson’s innocence, and he could decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a new hearing. Ferguson is currently serving a 40-year sentence for first-degree robbery and second-degree murder.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001, Heitholt left the office and was beaten and strangled to death with his own belt in the Tribune parking lot.
After two years without a solid suspect, the Tribune published an anniversary article about the murder in 2003. Shortly thereafter, Erickson told friends he had been having dreams that he and his friend, Ryan Ferguson, had something to do with it.
Police were soon clued in and brought Erickson in for questioning. Videos of the interrogation show a dazed-looking Erickson telling police that he didn’t know if he was “just flipping out or whatever,” and suggested that he had perhaps taken pieces of information from the newspaper and adopted them as his own memories. Erickson also falsely stated how many times Heitholt had been hit in the head, and what object he was strangled with. The police corrected him both times.
Ferguson was soon brought in for questioning as well. He maintained that he had nothing to do with the crime.
By the time the trial rolled around in 2005, any doubts that Erickson seemed to have in the interrogation had melted away. Erickson described to the jury how the two had taken down the 6-foot, 5-inch Heitholt, and he mimed how Ferguson had used the victim’s belt for strangulation. Ferguson's supporters have accused police and prosecutors of spoon-feeding Erickson information and grooming him to be a star witness against his former friend.
Trump, then a janitor at the Tribune, claimed at the trial that he had seen Ferguson leaving the crime scene. The testimonies of Trump and Erickson were key elements in what the jury later said solidified their “guilty” verdict.
Now both of the witnesses say they lied in 2005.
In a videotaped statement, Erickson said he could not accept that he committed such a heinous crime on his own, so he fingered his friend to take the fall with him. Although Erickson maintains that Ferguson was still present on the night of the murder, he now claims he acted alone and that Ferguson was only a witness.
Trump has since said that then-prosecuting attorney Kevin Crane coerced him into telling the jury that he recognized Ferguson as one of the men he saw leaving the crime scene. In a sworn affidavit, he now says he was unable to tell what the men looked like.
Despite the presence of hairs, shoe prints and fingerprints at the crime scene, no physical evidence linked either man to the murder.
On Tuesday, Ferguson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, will fly in from Chicago to speak on his behalf. Zellner has represented Ferguson since 2009 and has since filed various motions in an attempt to get him a new trial. Taking the recantations into account, Zellner filed a habeas corpus petition in February, hoping to free Ferguson from prison.
In May, Missouri's Attorney General's office responded to the appeal and said Erickson's recantation was not reliable enough to grant Ferguson immediate freedom. The state, however, did recommend a new evidentiary hearing be considered.
On Tuesday, Green could rule on whether to grant Ferguson a new hearing, and he could also set a date that would accommodate the various parties involved.
Bill Ferguson, Ryan’s father, said he feels stronger about this motion than other previous attempts.
Ferguson said he is "very optimistic that Judge Green will rule in favor or Ryan’s relief," either through a hearing or a direct action that would garner his freedom. The elder Ferguson describes Ryan as “cautiously optimistic.”
“We’re in a habeas court now, far away from the Boone County court,” he said. “This is the best opportunity for Ryan’s freedom; better than we’ve ever had before.”