JEFFERSON CITY — Under cross examination at Ryan Ferguson's evidentiary hearing Wednesday afternoon, Charles "Chuck" Erickson said that though he was aware his recantations of previous testimonies could violate his plea bargain, he wasn't worried about the immediate consequences.
"You're not going to take my plea deal away because then you'd admit that (Ferguson) didn't get a fair trial," Erickson told prosecuting attorney Page Bellamy. His comment elicited raised eyebrows and laughs from the gallery.
Ryan Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in the 2001 strangling death of Kent Heitholt, 48, in the Columbia Daily Tribune's parking lot. Charles "Chuck" Erickson testified during the 2005 trial that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt together. The conviction began a series of appeals and a change in representation for Ferguson to Chicago-based Kathleen Zellner.
Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green will determine at the end of the weeklong evidentiary hearing whether Ferguson will be granted a new trial.
When Erickson implicated Ferguson in the 2001 killing of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action in exchange for a reduced 25-year sentence. Erickson testified Wednesday morning that he has no memory of that night. He said he is unsure of his and Ferguson's involvement.
On Nov. 22, 2009, Erickson sent Ferguson a letter in prison and gave a videotaped statement to Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson's lawyer, saying that he alone committed the robbery and murder and that Ferguson was an innocent bystander. Although Erickson's 2009 statement didn't implicate Ferguson in the actual killing, Erickson still placed him at the scene.
When Zellner asked Erickson on Wednesday morning under direct examination if he made the November 2009 statements from memory, Erickson said he hadn't.
"I thought the only way I could correct what I'd done is to take responsibility and give Ryan a chance at a fair trial," Erickson said.
Erickson was confident as he answered the prosecution's questions Wednesday afternoon about his previous testimonies — he said they were mostly lies, told at first to protect himself and later to help Ferguson.
"I'm trying to do the right thing now," Erickson said.
Bellamy questioned Erickson's credibility as well as the reasons he testified the way he did and later recanted. In his questioning, Bellamy used examples of what he described as Erickson's worries, remorse or personal knowledge of the crime. Erickson replied that he didn't remember the incidents in question or that he had "lied through his teeth."
"I'm good at making stuff up," Erickson said. "I'm creative. I can lie. I can speak well."
Bellamy referred to letters exchanged between Erickson and Heitholt's daughter, Kali Heitholt, while Erickson was in prison. In the letters, Erickson wrote that he knew nothing could ever make up for what he had done but that he would try to be a good person.
Bellamy noted that corresponding or apologizing to Heitholt's family was not required as part of Erickson's plea agreement.
Erickson said he was trying to give Heitholt's daughter closure. But when asked if his apology was sincere, Erickson said it wasn't. At the time he wrote the letters, he said, he wasn't certain of his and Ferguson's involvement in the crime.
Erickson did acknowledge it was possible he participated in the killing and simply doesn't remember.
"If I did this, I'm sorry for it, and that's the truth," he said.
The prosecution sought to juxtapose Erickson's "emphatic" recantation with his 2005 trial testimony, in which he said he didn't care what happened to Ferguson.
Bellamy also questioned Erickson about statements made by police and then-Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane during the 2005 trial. Erickson said Wednesday that Detective John Short of the Columbia Police Department told him that Ferguson didn't care about Erickson's side of the story and that Erickson was on the "chopping block."
The court watched Short's interview of Erickson, who said on the stand that he felt he was being groomed to testify during the 2005 trial.
Erickson also said that when his defense attorney told him he could face first-degree murder charges, Erickson assumed these charges were synonymous with a death penalty or life imprisonment without parole.
In statements Erickson made to the police, he said he confided in at least three friends about what he thought his involvement in the murder might be weeks before he confessed. Erickson told his friends Nick Gilpin and Art Figueroa and police investigators that Ferguson confronted him at a New Year's Eve party in 2003 and threatened to kill him if Erickson talked to police about the killing. Erickson said he also told his parents about the threats against his life.
When he recanted, Erickson said he lied about the details surrounding the killing, including the threats he mentioned to his friends.
"I put the story out there that had me as the least responsible, the one that made Ryan look bad," Erickson said. "I lied to save my ass. So am I rat? Yeah, I am a rat. I did what I had to do to survive."
Erickson said early on in his testimony that he had to lie to everyone from the beginning, including his parents, in order to stick to the story that implicated Ferguson.
"I was trying to build my case against Ferguson and keep my plea deal," Erickson said. "I was trying to please the prosecution to secure my plea."
The prosecution further questioned Erickson about whether he recanted out of fear of the consequences of being labeled a "snitch" while in prison.
Erickson said that he had been called a rat only a couple of times and that he didn't care. The prosecution played recordings of phone conversations between Erickson and his mother in which he described encountering Ferguson on a prison bus. In the recording, Erickson said Ferguson called him a rat, to which Erickson responded by calling Ferguson a coward.
Bellamy noted that Erickson has been involved in 14 fights in prison and has been convicted of assault twice.
Court was expected to reconvene at 9 a.m. Thursday.