Cole County judge dismisses claim in Ryan Ferguson's latest appeal

Sunday, July 24, 2011 | 5:36 p.m. CDT; updated 1:04 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 25, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Ryan Ferguson recently faced another setback in his fight for either freedom or a new trial.

Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green ruled to dismiss one of the issues from Ferguson's latest appeal, which asserts the jury selection process in his trial was unconstitutional. The hearing was held July 12, and Green issued his ruling Friday.

A hearing is set for Aug. 9 to discuss the other issues in Ferguson’s habeas corpus petition.

Because of pretrial publicity, the jury that heard Ferguson's 2005 trial was bused in from Lincoln County. At that time, prospective jurors could pay $50 and choose to do community service in order to “opt out” of duty. Before Ferguson’s trial, 13 potential jurors did just that.

On Feb. 14, Ferguson filed a writ of habeas corpus, which argues that the jury selection process that was used warrants him a new trial.

Earlier, the argument against the opt-out option for jurors that was used by Ferguson's legal team was upheld in another case: The 2007 drug conviction of Donald W. Preston was overturned in September because state appellate judges found the process unconstitutional.

Ferguson is currently serving a 40-year sentence for the first-degree robbery and second-degree murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Since his 2005 conviction, Ferguson and his family have filed numerous motions in an effort to prove his innocence and exonerate him and free him from prison.

“Judge Green has the opportunity to do the right thing,” Ferguson said in an interview shortly after the hearing.

Bill Ferguson, Ryan Ferguson’s father, said his family was “floored” by Green’s recent dismissal.

“I have to admit, emotionally it was painful,” he said. “But, it was by no means devastating.”

Bill Ferguson called the jury selection issue a “constitutional technicality” and said he is counting on the other portions of the appeal to grant Ryan a new trial. The two witnesses whose testimonies landed Ryan Ferguson in prison are now saying in affidavits that they lied in court.

Chuck Erickson, who originally said Ferguson had strangled Heitholt, is now claiming full responsibility. Jerry Trump, a former janitor at the Tribune who said he saw Ferguson at the scene, now says he could not actually identify Ferguson as the man he saw that night.

“The key issues are the recantations of the only two witnesses against Ryan,” Bill Ferguson said. “The public needs to understand that if it were not for the false testimony of Erickson and Trump, Ryan would not have been found guilty and possibly not even charged.”

 Bill Ferguson said if the other issues fall through, they may have exhausted all of their options in Missouri. He remains adamant that even this would not be the end of the line.

“At that point, we’d appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals,” he said. “I hope not, but we’re quite prepared to do it.”

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