JEFFERSON CITY — In October, a Cole County Circuit Court judge will hear from three witnesses whose testimony could result in a new trial for Ryan Ferguson.
In 2005, Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in connection with the strangling of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt, 48.
In Cole County Circuit Court on Tuesday before Judge Daniel Green, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke and Ferguson’s attorney Kathleen Zellner were in agreement that the new evidence warranted granting Ferguson a new hearing.
"From my perspective, a hearing (is justified)" on three of the four grounds cited in the habeas corpus petition Zellner filed for her client in February, Hawke said.
Zellner quickly agreed.
Key testimony at the evidentiary hearing set for Oct. 25 will come from the prosecution's star witness, Charles Erickson. He testified in the 2005 trial in Boone County that Ferguson was directly responsible for Heitholt's death, though he said the pair committed the crime together. He testified he beat Heitholt with a tire tool but that Ferguson then strangled Heitholt with the victim's belt.
Autopsy results confirmed that the strangulation was the cause of death.
Erickson testified in exchange for a sentence of 25 years. Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
But in a videotaped deposition in 2009, Erickson tells Ferguson’s lawyer that he lied about Ferguson’s physical involvement — now saying Ferguson never touched the victim — but still places him at the scene. Erickson calls himself the “sole perpetrator” of the beating and strangulation.
Another witness in the 2005 trial, Jerry Trump, said he saw Ferguson and Erickson in the Tribune's parking lot the night of the 2001 slaying. The former Tribune janitor had originally told police that he would not be able to identify either man.
During the trial, however, he told the jury his memory was jogged after his wife sent him a newspaper article with Ferguson's picture when Trump was in prison.
In a sworn affidavit, Trump said he couldn’t be sure Ferguson was the man he caught sight of that night.
Both Erickson and Trump now claim they were coerced into modifying their statements in favor of the prosecution of Ferguson.
Erickson blamed Columbia Police interrogators for not delving into inconsistencies in his own story, and Trump said then-Boone County Chief Prosecutor Kevin Crane had said before the trial that it would be “helpful to him” if Trump could identify Ryan Ferguson as one of the men in the parking lot.
Crane, who is now a judge in the 13th Circuit of Boone County, declined to respond to that allegation.
Under the felony murder rule, Ferguson could still be tried just for his presence at the crime. However, Zellner has said that Erickson's contradictions will negate his credibility altogether, rendering him unfit to stand as a witness for a new trial. That will accomplish the ultimate goal: freeing Ferguson from prison outright.
The defense will also call in a new witness, Kimberly Bennett, who will testify that Ferguson and Erickson left the bar earlier than Erickson's timeline laid out — about an hour earlier than when the crime took place.
On July 22, Green dismissed the issue of whether the jury selection in Ferguson's first trial was unconstitutional, but days later Zellner filed a motion that challenged the procedural accuracy of his dismissal. Green did not rule on that motion Tuesday.
Afterward, Zellner told reporters she was pleased with the outcome and will take up the issue of jury selection at a later time, if needed.
“This is the key part of the case,” she said, referring to Erickson and Trump’s statements. “I’m thrilled that we got the hearing.”
On Tuesday, the court authorized both parties to begin discovery. Zellner said that in the next few months, the state “has the right to take depositions from witnesses that recanted.”
However, the state would not comment on its strategy.
The hearing is scheduled to last for five days; the state requested two days to present its findings, and Zellner asked for three.
Some rarely seen lead players will likely make an appearance at the upcoming hearing, including Crane and Erickson, who has been in prison in Missouri since 2004. Both have consistently refused to speak publicly on the case over the past few years.
Bill Ferguson, Ryan’s father, said his family is “looking forward” to hearing what Crane has to say.