Ryan Ferguson gets October hearing for new evidence in murder case

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 | 5:56 p.m. CDT; updated 10:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 9, 2011
At right, Kathleen Zellner, an attorney representing Ryan Ferguson, talks with Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke at a counsel status hearing Tuesday in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City. Ferguson, a Columbia man serving a 40-year prison sentence for the 2001 killing of a newspaper editor, will get to present new evidence in court that his attorneys say proves his innocence. (AP Photo/Columbia Daily Tribune, August Kryger)

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.


Related Media

Related Articles

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. 

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Ricky Gurley August 9, 2011 | 7:22 p.m.

Well, things are beginning to look up; I do believe....

Perhaps the obvious is starting to dawn on some of the "decision makers" in this case......

Ricky B. Gurley.

RMRI, Inc.
(573) 529-0808

(Report Comment)
Bruce Griffith August 9, 2011 | 8:10 p.m.

So sad it took two separate airings of 48 Hours and an episode on Dateline to get this ball rolling. I think the old prosecutor (now judge) earns that spot in prison where Ryan Ferguson now sits. Call me cynical, but I'm sure he won't even get a reprimand.

Hopefully the "powers that be" will do the right thing as we citizens expect from them and grant Ryan Ferguson a new trial.

(Report Comment)
Bill Ferguson August 9, 2011 | 10:49 p.m.

Now the accuser has become the accused

(Report Comment)
James Lewis August 10, 2011 | 12:36 a.m.

Mr. Ferguson, there are many of us 'out there' who have seen Ryan's story and are appalled by his conviction and continued incarceration. The conduct of the interrogators, prosecutor and jurors sickens me. You and your family's steadfast dedication to Ryan is truly heart-warming and I long for the day when you get to see him walk out of that prison as a free man. Keep fighting the good fight. We're pulling for you.

James Lewis
Monument, CO

(Report Comment)
Sheila Middleton August 10, 2011 | 3:00 p.m.

Having followed Ryan's case from the beginning I am truly elated at today's news! I cannot wait to see that corrupt, unethical, immoral weasel Kevin Crane in court. If justice were truly just then Kevin Crane would be the next occupant of Ryan's cell. If the state of Missouri is serious about righting this horrific wrong, then Kevin Crane would be removed from the bench, disbarred and prohibited from ever participating within the judicial system. My heartfelt prayers continue for the Ferguson family and the Heitholt family as well. Listen America, keep on contacting Missouri officials on Ryan's behalf. Fight on Ms. Zellner, we are pulling for you!

(Report Comment)
terri spratling August 10, 2011 | 6:39 p.m.

I do not believe either is guilty of this crime as neithers fingerprints nor hair was found at the scene. The police said the hair was that of the killers. Why wasn't phone records pulled by the police or prosecutors to prove or disprove Ryans location at the time of the murder. Why was there no blood evidence found in Ryans vehicle? Was the belt fingerprinted? Swabbed for DNA? Were the fingerprints found run through AFIS? DNA run through national database? All seems to me reasonable doubt! I pray the real killer(s)is/are brought to justice. These boys should be freed.
Terri from Florida

(Report Comment)
Susan Sapp August 11, 2011 | 4:41 a.m.

Certainly, after this new hearing, the Missouri court system will be as certain as the rest of us out here have been, since the beginning, Missouri's case against Ryan and Charles will not stand.

The antics played by the original prosecutor, now Judge Crane, and the Columbia police department, are way too illogical and staged to keep Missouri's ears shut any longer.

With all of the clanging and banging by Bill Ferguson, Ryan and Ms. Zellner, it should be more than difficult for Judge Crane to sleep at night. There is no way to replace those critical years Mr. Crane and even if the time in prison was handed over to your life, it wouldn't mean much, losing your license to practice or be on the bench wouldn't mean much either. This case has made fools of "the powers that be" and now it becomes clear that they are "criminal" powers that be. Hopefully you have some plan conjured up for replacing that. I doubt it will help at all and "sorry" doesn't cut it.

As for the Heitholt family? Mr. Crane and the Columbia
police department have pitifully failed you, tricked you
and handed you false hope for closure. Hopefully you will be able to pounce, along with the rest of us, on their shoulders with this abomination. They'll never be able to pay you back either as no cash settlement will replace what you've been through.

Judge Green, I applaud you for finally making it possible for allowing the evidentiary hearing to become a reality. What happens after that is up to the American Public.

The only hope for a smile here is that Crane and the entire cast and crew used for this trauma will be required to fulfill Ryan's sentence of 40 years, separately and completely, but starting with the year it was conjured up.

(Report Comment)
Bill Ferguson August 11, 2011 | 8:40 a.m.

LoneRanger (anonymous) says...
How many appeals is this now, 7 or 8?? When does it stop and who pays for each appeal? Why, you, the tax payer of course!

First one should understand the appeals process. In Missouri one does get several appeals that would seem to be good on first look. But what most of us do not realize is all the appeals until the summer of 2008 where construction so we could not bring new evidence to be considered.
The state justice system creates this problem.
There are over 4,200 counties in the US and operate the same way.
If anyone does not use each appeal the appeals process stops for ever.
Typically no one is exonerated until they removed from the motion court or the court they were convicted.
A prime example is when Judge Asel rule against Ryan in his 29.15 saying none of our witnesses had any creditability. We later discovered she had plagiarized her finding by coping what the prosecutor had written. I read in the Dale Helmig case the Judge in that case had done the same thing. Plagiarizing the prosecutor’s statement. Now I realize this is typical.
So until one get a Habeas Hearing you can bet you will lose all your appeals but you are forced to participate in each appeal in order. Only then are you allowed to file for a Habeas Hearing which is separate from the motion court or in our case away from Boone County.
For the average person this is quite a shock but not for people that do this as a living.
The continuous appeal process that does not allow you to introduce new information is a waste of time never mind the motion court always supporting the trial judge.
This is the reality of the local justice system has been for years.
I would agree this is quite an expense for the tax payers and the accused.
So Lone Ranger if you can bring about some changes I will be more than happy to support you.
You may have read in yesterday’s paper that Ryan is getting a Habeas Hearing one that is distance from the motion court.

This is the same court that gave Ryan a $20,000,000 bail the highest bail in the history of the United States. Now we think we may finally get a fair hearing.

Remember the only two witnesses against Ryan have now admitted they lied to the jury back in 2005 and that the Prosecutor aided and abetted in their false testimony. Prosecutor Crane's own witnesses have turned on him. Prosecutor Crane the prosecutor is now Judge Crane and the process continues.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin August 11, 2011 | 9:04 a.m.

Many, fairly simple aspects of this case weren't thoroughly checked out before it went to trial. The story detailed here is yet another example:

TENNESSEE TRAGEDY: Did drugs-in-sports scandal play role in Ryan Ferguson case? Pt. 1

Given all that, I wish the Fergusons and anyone else who wants to get at the truth all the best. Our justice system shouldn't leave any stones unturned before it convicts and sentences a person for a serious crime.

(Report Comment)
Bill Ferguson August 11, 2011 | 10:36 a.m.

I would like it to be known that we do not in any way support the idea the TENNESSEE TRAGEDY played any role in Heitholt Murder case.
What we do know is that the victim was struck 11 times in the head according to testimony from the ME during Ryan's Trial. None of the blows resulted in a skull fracture which tells us that the weapon was not a tire tool. Second it tells us the murderer did not bring a deadly weapon to the crime scene. Considering there were no skull fractures and the victim's belt was used in the crime.
All this tells us the murder was not a crime of premeditated.
People were coming in and out of the Tribune Building at the time of the Crime.
There were at least 6 people in the building that could have entered the parking lot during the crime.
Remember Shawna Ornt and Jerry Trump was present in the lot.
Two busy streets were near the parking lot.
The parking lot had good lighting
This was not a good place to commit a crime.
For the none Tribune employment there was a camera which would have been a concern for anyone in the parking lot.
Employees knew the camera did not work.
Could this crime have been premeditated?
I don't think so.

(Report Comment)
Sangati Bhatt August 11, 2011 | 2:40 p.m.

I hope Judge Green has enough courage to do the right thing even though the pressure exists to rule against Ryan.

I hope that People spread the word as much as they can and make Americans aware of this injustice for Ryan Ferguson.

And for all those people who do not have enough judgement power and are blinded by either their own experiences or their lack of intelligence, just pretend yourself being in Ryan's shoes once and try and think for a moment what if this would have happened to me. If you have a little bit of sensibility your opinion might change.

Whilst saying that I don't care much about their opinions.
The truth will come out sooner or later.
Good Luck Ryan. We are all with you !

(Report Comment)
lux lemon August 12, 2011 | 11:49 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
Tracy Fox August 12, 2011 | 6:13 p.m.

I think Charles Erickson was offered something to change his testimony, he would still be on the young side when he serves his time, so I think he was offered something

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire August 12, 2011 | 7:02 p.m.

Maybe he had a dream that somebody offered him something.

(Report Comment)
Jason Quick August 13, 2011 | 2:09 p.m.

This case is proof positive that the justice system is extremely flawed. The district attorneys office does not care about whether the accused is guilty of the crime but only that they win the case by any means neccesary. Do any of you really believe that Crane would have been appointed as a judge had he possessed a losing record in the court room. The same goes for the police department and detectives, all they care about is getting the case closed. How could any HONEST detective hear the ramblings of Erickson and believe him? The kid had no details about the crime until he was fed them by the detectives in their very intimidating interviews.

From just a 2 hour t.v show it is obvious to me that Ryan had nothing to do with this and that the whole process on the part of the state, from the cops on up, was extremely mishandled. Shouldnt it raise a judges eyebrows that everyone is changing their stories except for Ryan and that more than three people are saying they were pressured to basically lie by the then prosecutor? No, the justice system is the good ol boy system and they are going to continue to cover for eachother for the advancement of their own careers at the expense of innocent peoples lives.

I am so sorry for Ryan and what he has been through and I know it wil be of no comfort at all, but Ihope he knows that there are people out here that know he is innocent and he was only a victim of a corrupt system. I really hope that things work out with this next appeal and that he gets a judge with some morals remaining.

(Report Comment)
Dee Grayson August 15, 2011 | 7:24 p.m.

I'm happy for Ryan. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of the nightmare he's been living for so many years.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley August 17, 2011 | 11:27 p.m.

I don't think the Tennessee Tragedy B.S. played any role in the Heithold Murder either. The person that put this "off the wall theory" forward likes to play "amateur detective", so I don't think we should expect anything more than "off the wall theories" from him..

Although I think it is fair to say, while we are giving opinions; I do believe there is a connection to the state of Tennessee. As a matter of fact, I believe that the person responsible for Kent Heitholt's death is now in Tennessee.....


The person that put the Tennessee Tragedy Non-Sense out there did seem to do a pretty good job of solving the murder of Professor Im.......... LMAO!


Ricky B. Gurley.

RMRI, Inc.
(573) 529-0808

(Report Comment)
Sarah Smith September 14, 2011 | 10:14 a.m.

Having watched the Dateline piece on Ryan Ferguson, I am appalled that something like this could happen. So many years have been taken from Ryan that he can never get back. By now he would probably been married with children and enjoying the fruits of life as God intended. Mr. Crane should be ashamed of himself for what he has done to this young man. I feel Ryan is strong and with the pure love of his family will pull through this, although he can never recover the lost years. I'm praying for you Ryan, that this injustice be righted. Godspeed and Good Luck to you and your family. We hope to hear from you when you are released to live the life you so deserve.

Sarah Smith
South Bend, Indiana

(Report Comment)
Sarah Smith May 2, 2012 | 10:19 a.m.

After much more reading, it doesn't seem that this is the first time this has happened with the MOPD. Please give this young man a new trial, release him and give him his LIFE BACK!

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.