UPDATE: Ryan Ferguson won't testify in evidentiary hearing next week

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 | 7:51 p.m. CDT
Ryan Ferguson talks to a Missourian reporter in a visitors room at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Ferguson is serving a 40-year sentence for first-degree robbery and second-degree murder in the killing of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt. A preliminary hearing in Ferguson's case was held Wednesday ahead of a five-day evidentiary hearing that starts Monday, where he hopes new evidence will prove his innocence.

JEFFERSON CITY — A Columbia man serving a 40-year sentence for the 2001 murder of a newspaper sports editor is returning to court with new evidence he hopes will prove his innocence, but he won't take the stand in his own defense.

Ryan Ferguson was convicted in 2005 of second-degree murder in the strangling death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Colleagues said Heitholt was attacked while feeding a stray cat in the newspaper's parking lot.

Ferguson has convinced a Cole County judge that he deserves a new hearing based in part on the testimony of Charles Erickson, a former high school friend and co-defendant. Erickson pleaded guilty to Heitholt's slaying and received a lesser sentence, but now says he acted alone.

At a preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon, Ferguson's attorney said her client won't testify at a five-day evidentiary hearing that starts on Monday before Circuit Judge Daniel Green.

But Chicago lawyer Kathleen Zellner, who has helped gain the freedom of several men convicted of murder in Illinois and will be portrayed by actress Jessica Biel in an upcoming Hollywood adaptation of a case involving a serial killer, plans to subpoena one of Heitholt's former co-workers who has since come under suspicion for his possible involvement.

Former Tribune sports writer Michael Boyd has denied playing any role in Heitholt's death. Three attorneys representing the Missouri attorney general agreed Wednesday to drop their objections to his testimony only after Zellner assured them and the judge that she doesn't plan to pursue the notion of Boyd as a potential suspect. Boyd did not testify at Ferguson's first trial.

"He's going to establish a timeline, including providing an alibi," Zellner said of Boyd. "When you have the last known person known to have been seen with someone who is murdered, they're important to the case."

Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce said the state also plans to call new witnesses who will challenge Erickson's more recent accounts of the night Heitholt died.

Ferguson and Erickson were Rock Bridge High School juniors who sneaked into a nightclub on Halloween night 2001 and left sometime around 1:15 a.m. Ferguson has said he drove Erickson home, then went home himself.

Erickson initially testified that the two acted together to kill Heitholt, who was found dead near the newspaper's downtown Columbia office around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001. Erickson said he initially repressed his memory of the killing but began to recall details two years later after reading news accounts of the crime and traveling past the crime scene. Some of those details emerged in dreams, he claimed. He called the encounter a botched robbery hatched when they ran out of money and wanted to keep drinking.

Zellner objected Wednesday to the state's desire to introduce new evidence, arguing that "the court should be reviewing the credibility of the trial evidence." Green didn't immediately rule on the request, but suggested the state was likely to prevail.

"It seems your actual innocence claim opens the door to everything," the judge said.

Also expected to testify next week are a former Columbia Tribune janitor who has since said he mistakenly identified Erickson and Ferguson under pressure from then-Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane.

And Crane, now a Boone County judge, will likely be called to the stand as a witness for the state. Crane previously testified at a July 2008 post-conviction hearing in Columbia.

The current case is being heard in Cole County because Ferguson is imprisoned in Jefferson City. He did not attend Wednesday's brief proceeding.

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paul benson April 13, 2012 | 9:05 a.m.

The hearing scheduled for next week is great news, and a long time coming; far too long. I believe Ryan's father has said publicly and certainly I think he is correct, that neither Ryan or Mr. Erickson were anywhere near the scene of this horrific murder and that Mr.Erickson was coerced into a confession. How? After he started telling others he was involved (who knows what he was thinking or doing??) he was picked up by the cops, and essentially given the choice of going to trial or taking a plea for 12 years; I don't think Mr. Erickson, to this day, understands the situation very well. In any case this is the substance of the truth. It is very disturbing that now the prosecution wants to submit new evidence in the context of this hearing. The judge is wrong to allow it. This is NOT *the* trial; it is a hearing to determine the validity of the prosecutions previous acts and evidence and I don't think the prosecution has any right to submit new evidence especially since their old evidence is so suspect. If the prosecution is allowed to submit new evidence what is the defense response? They will have to take the time to review this evidence before the hearing, and then determine what their additional defense will require. This invites more delay - the hearing has been delayed long enough and should have been allowed in the original court jurisdiction (where it was denied). In fact the primary reason the hearing is in Cole county now is because the defense petitioned for a change in order to get a fair ruling. The judge should not allow the prosecution to submit new evidence - it is an error, and ripe for another appeal - but the result will only be that Ryan Ferguson remains in jail if such an appeal must occur. Let us all hope the judge shows more wisdom, and that Ryan is freed ASAP.

(Report Comment)
Denna Lee April 13, 2012 | 7:41 p.m.

I feel so bad for Ryan Ferguson. I believe he is innocent but I think the chances of them granting a new trial are slim. It's very sad that the judicial system can do this to him and there doesn't seem to be anything anyone can do about it. Good luck to the Fergusons next week.

(Report Comment)
Graeme Clinton April 16, 2012 | 1:10 p.m.

Ryan Ferguson has been convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison off the back of a distorted confession by his friend who by his own admission was 'out of my mind on drugs and alcohol'. Ryan Ferguson left no physical evidence at the scene of the crime. The only two witnesses used to convict Ryan were Chuck Erickson & Jerry Trump. They have both recanted and claim they were coerced into modifying their statements in favour of the prosecution of Ferguson. This is a grave miscarriage of justice. Please sign this petition to help Ryan Ferguson get a new trial:

(Report Comment)
Sarah Snyder April 16, 2012 | 1:28 p.m.
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