UPDATE: At Ryan Ferguson hearing, witnesses challenge police questioning

Monday, April 16, 2012 | 10:14 p.m. CDT; updated 11:21 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 16, 2012
An evidentiary hearing to consider a new trial for Ryan Ferguson in the 2001 murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Ken Heitholt began Monday. The hearing is taking place in Cole County, where Ferguson is serving his prison sentence.

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.

Morning testimony

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.

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Cecil Caulkins April 17, 2012 | 5:05 a.m.

This case is starting to sound a lot like the Dale Helmig story: Someone decides that a guy is "good for it," and then the evidence magically supports that point of view. It might be time for a new investigation by people who are looking for facts rather than for evidence to support conclusions they have already drawn.

(Report Comment)
Jan Davis April 19, 2012 | 11:48 a.m.

There is no evidence at all to remotelyRyan Ferguson being at the scene. Erickson has a dream. That's it, just a dream. He knows no details, just has a very vivid dream, and has done this sort of thing before. So, he begins talking until it gets in the hands of the police. They decided then and there he (Erickson) and Ryan were guilty, because Erickson "said so". Have these seasoned detectives and the proseuctor, the all knowing pompous Kevin Crane not ever heard of a false confession? It happens all the time. They get a nervous scared person in the interrogation room, and they finally "break" them, and get their confession. In Erickson's case, what he didn't know about the crime, they supplied to him. Basically, all he knew was what the rest of the public did, what they read in the paper. They were all too willing though, to supply him with the needed information so they could strut around and say they solved this crime.
Kevin Crane lied, coerced, and intimidated witnessess. That is a fact. People that he interviewed were afraid not to say what he wanted them to, and he was so desperate to say he solved it, that he stooped at nothing to get what he wanted.
I read a comment from one person posted that said for Crane to "hold his head up high", he probably will. He thinks he is above the law himself.
I am sure Missouri is full of honorable decent people, but the ones involved with getting a conviction for Charles Chuck Erickson are not in that category. Common sense and decency did not prevail when the interrogated Erickson or Ferguson. They should have realized that Erickson was mentally ill, concluded the interview with advise that he seek help. They should not have bothered Ferguson at all. They should have been interested in what I still hope ethical and caring detectives and DA's are interested in when trying to solve a murder...evidence. What evidence did they have that even remotely suggested this crime was done by Erickson or Ferguson? None that I have seen or heard of.
I am upset and angry that a man's freedom can be taken away by something as flimsy as a dream. If they want to convince me that either of these men did this crime, I would have to see evidence, and I would think they would want that too.
I feel the entire process of charging these two men, from the beginning interrogations, to the ending with their being charged with this crime and sentenced to prison was unethical, dishonorable, with no thought or concern to lives they were ruining. I feel this was just to inflate their already over-inflated egos.
Now the few tiny shreds they have or had has come apart, the ones that originally helped get Ryan incarcerated have recanted and admitted their stories were as a result of being coerced and intimidated, now what else is is going to take to right this wrong?
Jan Davis

(Report Comment)
Jan Davis April 19, 2012 | 12:11 p.m.

I have always said that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I do mean that. I think the majority that read about Ryan believe he is innocent, because there is nothing pointing to him being guilty. I did read some comments that was so obvious in favor or Crane, that basically nothing would convince them that he could do anything but the right thing. I thought a prosecutor was supposed to seek truth. Crane seems to me someone that only seeks personal glory, and would arrest his own Mother if it would promote his career. I even heard him comment that if Erickson said he did it, then he did it. A prosecutor that has never heard of a false confession? That is scary. Even more so, they appointed him to the bench. I guess if you intimidate and scare enough people, you can get rewarded for it. I do hope he is truthful during the hearing, but I'm not counting on it.

(Report Comment)
A T Koorb May 11, 2012 | 9:45 p.m.

so let's get this straight, the prime suspect's story never changed, with no evidence showing he was ever caught in a lie. yet both eyewitnesses, Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump; Mr. Heitholt's co-worker, Michael Boyd; and the police interrogator, Detective Short; as well as Prosecutor, Kevin Crane, were ALL shown to have lied, in some cases repeatedly. i'm guessing that in order to keep from looking stupid it is ok for the criminal justice system to defend its own pack of lies, in order to reach a particular brand of justice that convicts the only person whose testimony and character remained consistent throughout. momma always said, "stupid is, is stupid does!"

(Report Comment)
Jim Rothenberger June 15, 2012 | 9:29 a.m.

Has there still been no ruling on this hearing? I can't believe that this man sits in jail with all that's been identified wrong with his initial trial.

(Report Comment)

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