GEORGE KENNEDY: Fragile evidence is keeping Ryan Ferguson in prison

Thursday, August 11, 2011 | 6:26 p.m. CDT; updated 8:06 p.m. CDT, Thursday, August 11, 2011

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.         

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Cheyenne Greene August 12, 2011 | 8:56 a.m.

Finally! we agree on something. I like the way you've laid this out. This should be an interesting Fall of 2011.

(Report Comment)
P. Birmingham August 12, 2011 | 9:06 a.m.

I sure hope he's released. They don't have enough evidence to prosecute him again.

(Report Comment)
Bill Ferguson August 12, 2011 | 12:32 p.m.

Please correct me if I am mistaken but the sixth word should have been DID "see the defendants" in the fourth paragraph

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 (Jerry Trump) mind and pointed to Ferguson.

The one who said she did see the defendants was Shanwa Ornt who has maintained the person she saw was not Ryan Ferguson or Charles Erickson.

Shawna Ornt was the one who assisted the police in drawing the composite shorly after the murder of the person she saw in the parking lot that night. Later in March 2003 Ornt was asked back to the police station to assist in drawing a second composite of the person she spoke to that night.

Prosecutor Crane called Ornt to the stand but did not ask her if she could idenify Ryan who was setting a few feet away from Ornt. Prosecutor Crane did not ask Ornt because he already knew her answer.

Ornt had already told Prosecutor Crane prior to the trial that the person she saw was not Ryan or Chuck.

All of Prosecutor Crane's evidence was melting away by December 2004.

He was desperate!

The Dallas Mallory eye witness story with the false red light, the bloody shoe prints which did not match Ryan or Chuck, the finger prints did not match either boy nor the hair found in the hand of the victim. The tire tool found in Ryan's car had nothing to do with the crime per the FBI lab there was nothing to connect Ryan to the crime scene except for Chuck who could not keep his story stright.

Finally Prosecutor Crane enlisted Jerry Trump as a witness December 21, 2004 who had been released from prison 8 days before after serving 3 years of a 5 year sentence for child endangerment with sexual contact.
Trump still had 2 years of probation remaining on his sentence. Prosecutor Crane was well aware of this probation situation.

(Report Comment)
Bill Ferguson August 12, 2011 | 12:35 p.m.

Unbeknownst to Prosecutor Crane, Jerry Trump had already told 5 people with in days of the murder he could not see the faces of the two boys in the parking lot. Three years later Prosecutor Crane tried to shoe horn Trump into the role of an eye witness never mind the past police reports where Trump said he knew nothing.

Now in 2011 we see Jerry Trump saying he lied during the trial and that Prosecutor Crane had aided and abetted in his false testimony.

Of course remember Trump had already years before told 5 different people he saw nothing.
Good luck with that one Judge Crane.
Guess we will hear your story in October when you take the witness stand in Cole County after Erickson and Trump have testified.

Why didn't Prosecutor Crane ask Shawna Ornt while she on the witness stand as Prosecutor Crane's witness if she could identify Ryan as the person she spoke with and had drawn two composites?

No Prosecutor Crane chose to ask Jerry Trump to identify Ryan after telling various people he could not see their faces. Jerry Trump was never asked to draw a composite of the person in the parking lot.

This after making up the wild story that his wife had sent him a newspaper with photos for Ryan and Chuck. Trump now says his wife never sent him the newspaper.
Opps Judge Crane.
It's all in Trumps sworn affidavit

(Report Comment)
George Kennedy August 12, 2011 | 3:17 p.m.

Mr. Ferguson, you've caught me being unclear. I should have written that she didn't testify to what she saw -- or didn't see. Thanks for clarifying.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 12, 2011 | 3:37 p.m.

Bill, how long were the Dateline reporter and his producers in town? In some shots, you and he were wearing heavy coats, and in others, the grass on the courthouse lawn was as green as green can be. Just curious how long they were here in the trenches doing their reporting. Thanks, and good luck.

(Report Comment)
Bill Ferguson August 13, 2011 | 1:11 p.m.

It seem Dateline was filming here in either December or January last.

(Report Comment)
Dawn Durell August 19, 2011 | 12:19 p.m.

I pray for Ryan's release from prison. I have followed this story since the beginning and it is frightening how someone can be convicted on nothing! Thanks for the update on this...Good and hopeful article. Ms. Zellner is a sharp and upstanding lawyer and has won before! There are others who could benefit from her assistance and diligence I have also felt were wrongfully convicted. I just read that the Memphis 3 may be freed! Also wrongfully convicted in my opinion. I would like to see some high profile people rally around Ryan as well...Good luck Ferguson family! I will be following the progress...

(Report Comment)

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