I’ve never understood how Ryan Ferguson was convicted in the first place. Now, I’m not saying he’s innocent. I don’t know. But how can anybody be convicted of murder on the basis of a drug abuser’s dream?
That’s really what the case came down to. You recall the sad, tangled story. A couple of years after Kent Heitholt was killed — beaten and strangled in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he was sports editor — a kid named Chuck Erickson, a Rock Bridge High School classmate of Ferguson, began telling friends he’d dreamed that he might have been involved.
When I wrote about the case two years ago, I commented that the dream turned into a Ferguson family nightmare after his friend eventually confessed and testified that Ryan was in on the murder with him.
The prosecution didn’t have much more. No fingerprints, no DNA, no murder weapon. There were two supposed witnesses, both Tribune janitors at the time. The one who said she didn’t see the defendants didn’t testify. The other said at first he couldn’t recognize anybody but then changed his mind and pointed to Ferguson.
The murder took place in 2001, the trial in 2005. Both defendants were convicted of second-degree murder and robbery. Chuck Erickson’s doing 25 years; Ryan Ferguson 40.
This week came the news that there’ll be an evidentiary hearing for Ferguson in October. His attorney, a high-powered defense specialist from Chicago named Kathleen Zellner, says the outcome of that hearing should be freedom for her client.
Indeed, she recently told the Missourian’s Megan Cassidy that in Illinois, where the rules on appeals are less restrictive, “he would be back in college by now.”
(If you haven’t read Megan’s in-depth account of the case in last Friday’s Missourian, you should. You’ll find more facts, more context and less show business than in the “Dateline NBC” version that aired that night.)
The evidence Ms. Zellner is counting on will include testimony from Erickson, who told her in a videotaped deposition in 2009 that he lied on the stand. He said he was high when he killed Heitholt. He said that his friend, though present, didn’t take part in the murder.
There’ll also be a recantation by Jerry Trump, the eyewitness who has changed his mind again and now says he can’t be sure he saw Ferguson at the scene. And the eyewitness who has said the men she saw at the scene weren’t Erickson and Ferguson will get to say that again.
We will probably also hear from Kevin Crane, now a judge but then the prosecuting attorney making his highest-profile case. Both Erickson and Trump, in their sworn statements to Ms. Zellner, have said they were coerced in their trial testimony by Crane. He hasn’t responded so far, but presumably he’ll defend himself then.
Ryan Ferguson has been behind bars since 2004. The cocky kid who may have alienated jurors seems to have matured. Megan, who interviewed him in prison, described him as “upbeat and humble.”
What hasn’t changed is his insistence on his innocence.
Some of the jurors who convicted him have had second thoughts. In a Tribune article May 1, two said they now think he deserves another trial. A third said, “He’s innocent.” Most didn’t want to revisit the case.
If Ms. Zellner and her client prevail in October, prosecutors would have to decide whether to try him again. The recantations would appear to a nonlawyer to make that difficult.
Which Chuck Erickson should we believe? Which Jerry Trump? Neither?
If the hearing begins as scheduled on Oct. 25, it will be a week short of 10 years since Kent Heitholt was murdered. It will be six years since Ryan Ferguson was convicted of a crime he may not have committed.
As the old saying goes, the wheels of justice grind exceeding slow.