Defense seeks timeline during final witness testimonies in Ferguson hearing

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 3:12 p.m. CDT; updated 8:18 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 19, 2012
Judge Kevin Crane, who served as prosecutor in Ryan Ferguson's murder trial, testifies during an evidentiary hearing for Ferguson at the Cole County Circuit Court on Thursday in Jefferson City. Ferguson is serving a 40-year sentence after his 2005 conviction for second-degree murder and robbery in the death of Columbia Daily Tribune editor Kent Heitholt four years earlier.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated what side called Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane to testify in the hearing.

JEFFERSON CITY — The defense rested its case Thursday at Ryan Ferguson's evidentiary hearing after three of its final witnesses testified about the timeline of events that led up to the 2001 killing of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

Michael Boyd, a former Tribune sports reporter, and Rus Baer, who still works as a sports reporter for the newspaper, gave testimony about what they saw at the Tribune building the night of Heitholt's death. Kimberly Bennett, who saw Ferguson and Erickson outside By George, a former Columbia dance club, told the court she saw the two drive away from the club in Ferguson's car before the killing.

The history

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.

*The prosecution called to the stand Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, who served as Boone County prosecutor during Ferguson's 2005 trial. Crane denied allegations of witness tampering discussed during Monday's testimony by Jerry Trump, a former Tribune janitor.

In a taped deposition played Monday and on the stand Tuesday, Trump recanted testimony he gave during the 2005 trial that identified Ferguson as one of the men he saw in the Tribune parking lot the night of Heitholt's killing. He said Crane told him it would be "helpful" to the prosecution's case if Trump identified Ferguson and Charles "Chuck" Erickson as the men he saw that night.

"I never told any witness, including Mr. Trump, what to say or testify to," Crane insisted Wednesday.

Crane testified that he first met with Trump in December 2004, about a month after Erickson pleaded guilty in the Heitholt killing.

He said Trump told him he could identify the two individuals he saw at the scene. This information came "unsolicited, very soon into the conversation," Crane testified.

Crane said Trump saw photographs of Erickson and Ferguson in a newspaper article while he served a sentence for a sex-related offense. After seeing the photos, Crane said, Trump contacted Crane and told him he could identify the men he saw in the lot.

Trump testified Tuesday that the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office called him while he was in prison. Trump told the court he knew at the time the call would be about the Heitholt killing.

Because Trump didn't identify the men using a traditional photo line-up, Crane said Wednesday, he was unsure of the legal precedent of admitting the testimony.

"I needed to research the scenario," Crane said. "I had never run into it before."

Trump's identification of Ferguson was ultimately allowed at the 2005 trial — along with Erickson's testimony, it placed Ferguson at the scene of the crime.

Boyd was working as a sports writer at the Tribune the night of Heitholt's killing and is the last known person to have seen or spoken to Heitholt before his death.

He testified that he logged off his computer at 2 a.m. and that he was in the newspaper's empty parking lot around 2:10 a.m. He said he got into his red Chevy and fiddled with the radio for a few minutes.

When Heitholt came out of the building and walked to his car a few minutes later, Boyd testified, Boyd pulled up next to him, and the two men spoke for about five minutes. He said they talked about the cat that was using Heitholt's car tire as a scratching post as well as the week's story assignments.

When he pulled into the alley to drive away, Boyd said, he wasn't fully paying attention and was startled by two people walking in the alley. Boyd testified that he didn't get a good look at them — he couldn't identify their gender, race, hair color or any other features, he said. Boyd said that he didn't question the presence of the two people in the alley and that he had no reason to believe they intended to kill Heitholt.

"Everybody comes through that alley," Boyd said. "Nothing suspicious ... no hiding."

"They were just walking," he continued. "No hiding or running ... just walking."

Boyd testified that as he drove away around 2:20 a.m., he looked back in his rear-view mirror at Heitholt, who was bent over with his head inside his car. Boyd said that because Heitholt was a tall man, he usually entered his car that way. Boyd said he assumed Heitholt was getting into his car to leave.

Boyd said he arrived home around 2:45 a.m. and went to bed. Around 4 a.m., he said, he received a phone call from co-worker Rus Baer, who told him Heitholt was hurt. Boyd said Baer handed the phone to someone Boyd thought was Columbia Police Department Detective John Short, who asked Boyd a few questions, he said.

Boyd testified that he told police and William Haws, a Boone County Prosecuting Attorney's Office investigator, that he could not identify the people he saw in the alley the night of Heitholt's killing.

On the stand, Boyd said that his car was never searched for DNA evidence and that police never asked about the clothes he wore that night.

The defense called Baer, who testified that he was in the Tribune building the night of Heitholt's killing. He told the court that Shawna Ornt, a member of the custodial staff, ran into the sports department and said something had happened to Heitholt. Baer went with a co-worker to the parking lot, where they found Heitholt "laying on his side, kind of face down."

Baer testified that he briefly looked around for anyone fleeing the scene but said he saw no one.

Baer also testified that when he called Boyd later that night to tell him Heitholt was hurt, he didn't give the phone to Short to speak with Boyd.

The defense also called Kimberly Bennett, who testified that she saw Ferguson and Erickson the night of the killing at By George. She said the bar began to close at 1 a.m., after which Bennett said she waited in the parking lot with a friend.

They were waiting for another friend who was working as a deejay at the bar that night and was packing up his equipment. Bennett described the club as being "empty" around 1:30 a.m.

Bennett said she then saw Erickson and Ferguson leave By George. They said goodbye to her as they walked past, crossed the street, waved goodbye again, entered their car and drove away, Bennett testified.

About a half a block stood between where Bennett was waiting in the parking lot to where Ferguson and Erickson entered their parked car, she said. Bennett testified that she could see the two clearly and said she remembered the maroon color of Ferguson's car. Bennett said she was "100 percent" sure when asked of her certainty that she saw them drive away.

Bennett said she left the club around 1:45 a.m.

In his 2005 trial testimony, Erickson said he and Ferguson returned to By George after killing Heitholt around 2:20 a.m.

Bennett said she remembers the events of the night so vividly because it was her first time at a bar — she said she was 16 at the time. Although she said she ordered a drink, she only took one or two sips of it because she was extremely nervous. Bennett said she was not at all intoxicated.

Court recessed for lunch around noon.

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