JEFFERSON CITY — Witness testimony in the Ryan Ferguson evidentiary hearing Monday afternoon challenged interrogation techniques used by Columbia Police Department detectives on Charles "Chuck" Erickson after his 2004 confession.
Joseph Buckley, a detection of deception examiner, was called by the defense to testify that by sharing details of the killing with Erickson, police detectives weakened the validity of Erickson’s confession because they didn't ask him to independently volunteer the same information.
The court spent the morning listening to opening statements and watching a videotaped deposition of Jerry Trump, a former Columbia Daily Tribune janitor, discussing his affidavits that recanted his trial testimony.
Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in the 2001 strangling death of Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, 48, in the newspaper’s parking lot. Erickson, a former classmate of Ferguson's, testified during the 2005 trial that he and Ferguson had killed Heitholt together. The conviction began a series of appeals and a change in representation for Ferguson to Chicago-based attorney Kathleen Zellner.
Ferguson, appearing in court in an orange prison jumpsuit, looked to his family seated in the second row among other supporters in the full Cole County Circuit courtroom. Pen in hand, he wrote periodically during the day's proceedings and kept his hand on his chin while listening to testimony. About 50 people watched from the gallery as proceedings began, but that number dwindled as the day went on.
Buckley said during his afternoon testimony that police detectives violated an important principle of interrogation when they questioned Erickson in 2004: withholding information from a potential suspect.
Buckley explained on the stand that if a person confesses to a crime, police should ask for details about the crime that were not released to the media and public. The confession can be validated if the person independently volunteers these details, Buckley said.
But Buckley said police often shared such details with Erickson. They prompted Erickson with the facts they had, and he often simply agreed with them, Buckley said.
For example, Erickson did not initially say during his interview with Detective John Short that Heitholt had been strangled with his own belt, Buckley said. When police questioned Erickson about what Ferguson used to strangle Heitholt, Erickson offered several incorrect guesses before police told him that Heitholt's belt was used.
When he testified at Ferguson's trial, Erickson was confident not only that a belt was used to strangle Heitholt, but also that Ferguson was the one who had strangled him.
The court watched Erickson’s post-confession interview tape during Buckley’s testimony. After detectives corrected Erickson when he suggested Heitholt was strangled with a T-shirt or a bungee cord, several people sitting in the gallery snickered.
Buckley also said the information Erickson offered on his own needed to be checked for discrepancies, including his claim that he and Ferguson stole Heitholt's wallet — which was later found in Heitholt's car — or that the two returned to the By George dance club, which was already closed by the time Heitholt was killed.
The defense also called to the stand private investigator Steven Kirby, whose survey of the site where Heitholt was killed challenged Trump's original testimony. On the stand in 2005, Trump identified Ferguson and Erickson as the men he saw in the Tribune parking lot the night of Heitholt’s killing.
But Kirby, who visited the parking lot as recently as Sunday night, estimated that the distance between where Trump said he was standing that night and where he said he saw the two men was roughly 75 feet. Based on photographs he took of the lot that were entered into evidence, Kirby said the lighting made it difficult to see.
In Monday morning's first opening statement, Zellner highlighted Trump and Erickson’s recanted testimonies as the linchpins of the defense’s argument. Erickson has now claimed full responsibility for Heitholt’s killing but maintains that Ferguson was with him when it happened. Ferguson nodded along slightly as Zellner spoke.
Zellner also said they would call Michael Boyd, then a sports reporter working under Heitholt at the Tribune, to "establish a timeline" of what happened the night of Heitholt’s death.
Kimberly Bennett, who saw Ferguson and Erickson at By George, was expected to corroborate Ferguson’s story that he and Erickson left the club in Ferguson’s car. Further, Zellner said the court would hear a 20-page revised affidavit that Erickson typed in prison.
"It’s shocking that it’s taken this long, but I think we all believe in the judicial system," Zellner said. "We all believe that ultimately we can get to the truth."
The state argued there is no new evidence in the Ferguson case — any discrepancies in Erickson’s testimony stem from "the realities of prison," said Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce. To avoid the "snitch label" that he picked up by implicating Ferguson, Erickson recanted, Bruce said.
Trump’s videotaped deposition took up the majority of the morning’s proceedings. Under questioning by Zellner and Bruce, Trump confirmed that he could not identify the two men he saw in the Tribune’s parking lot the night of Heitholt’s murder. He said he did not know whether the men in the lot were involved in Heitholt’s death.
Zellner and Bruce also asked Trump about his testimony that his wife had sent him an article with pictures of Ferguson and Erickson while Trump was serving time for a sex offense. In his affidavit and deposition, Trump said he didn’t see the newspaper with that article until then-Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane showed it to him.
Trump hesitated when asked if he had given false testimony during the trial. He said he identified Ferguson and Erickson as the men he saw in the lot because he thought it was "expected of me." He said that he believed the conviction was a "done deal" and that his testimony could be "helpful," though he noted in his deposition that he didn’t know if he was ever confident of Ferguson’s involvement.
"Probably in my own mind I added it to the story that they were the ones I saw," Trump said in his deposition.
"I was also under the guidance of the Prosecutor's Office, who told me already that these were the two guys who did it," Trump added later in the tape. "They were 99 percent sure because of (Erickson's) admission."
To this, Ferguson’s supporters smiled and a few patted Ferguson’s father, Bill Ferguson, on the back.
The hearing was scheduled to last until the end of the week. When it was rescheduled in October, Zellner asked for three days to present the defense’s evidence, and the state requested two days for its argument.