Ferguson hearing ends, decision expected in mid-June

Friday, April 20, 2012 | 3:49 p.m. CDT; updated 5:18 p.m. CDT, Saturday, April 21, 2012
Convicted murder defendant Ryan Ferguson listens to Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce deliver his opening statements during an evidentiary hearing in April.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to someone else as the subject of Iranpour's testimony. He was referring to Erickson.

JEFFERSON CITY — Ryan Ferguson's evidentiary hearing came to a close Friday morning, leaving Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green to decide by mid-June whether he will overrule Ferguson's 2005 conviction.

In their closing arguments, attorneys presented opposing interpretations of the way Green should consider recanted testimonies from Jerry Trump and Charles "Chuck" Erickson as he makes his decision. If Green rules in favor of Ferguson, Ferguson could be provided an opportunity for a new trial, contingent upon appeals made after Green's ruling.

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 after the week-long evidentiary hearing whether Ferguson's original charges will be vacated, which might provide Ferguson an opportunity for a new trial.

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Trump, a former Tribune janitor, identified Ferguson and Erickson during the 2005 trial as the men he saw in the Columbia Daily Tribune's parking lot the night sports editor Kent Heitholt was killed in 2001. Erickson implicated Ferguson in the killing when he confessed to Columbia Police Department detectives in 2004. 

Both men recanted their original testimonies during Ferguson's evidentiary hearing this week and in previous affidavits and depositions. Trump told the court Tuesday he falsely identified Ferguson as one of the men he saw the night of Heitholt's death. Erickson testified Wednesday he has no memory of the night Heitholt was killed and is unsure of his or Ferguson's involvement in the crime.

Ryan Ferguson's defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, argued that Ferguson's conviction should be overturned because it was based on "perjured and false" testimony.

Zellner pointed to a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in the case of Joseph Amrine, who was exonerated in 2003 after spending 16 years on death row. That ruling holds that a court has a duty to vacate the sentence of a person "convicted on the testimony of liars," Zellner said, adding that the recanted testimony in Ferguson's case was precisely that.
Zellner said there were only two pieces of evidence tying Ferguson to the crime: the testimonies of Trump and Erickson. 
She said it was not up to Green to decide which version of the events is true, but rather to decide whether the two men lied on the stand during Ferguson's 2005 trial. Jurors should then be the ones to decide which version of events is true during a new trial, Zellner said.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke rebutted that the Amrine ruling does not apply to Ferguson's case because the validity of the recantations needs to be considered. Hawke argued that the court has a "duty to reject a request for a new trial" if the court deems the recantations aren't credible. 
Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce also said during the prosecution's closing arguments that testimony from Erickson and Trump' at the 2005 trial was the truth and the recantations were fabricated. Bruce said Erickson is an "erratic, babbling person" who had everything to gain from recanting his 2005 testimony, Trump's recantation was "factually impossible." Bruce and Hawke urged Green to deny Ferguson's petition.

Earlier Friday morning, the prosecution called its last witness, Korey Iranpour, a high school friend of Erickson's who lives in Columbia. Iranpour testified that in November 2003, he and a few friends, including Erickson, were drinking at Iranpour's mother's house.

Iranpour said that within an hour of arriving, Erickson "trailed off" by himself. He said he found Erickson "visibly upset" and "tearing up" on the porch.

"Dude, have you ever done something that you regret so much?" Iranpour said Erickson asked him that night.

"I have done something I have to live with for the rest of my life," Erickson continued, according to Iranpour.

Iranpour testified Erickson remained upset for about an hour — he said he had no idea what Erickson was sad about. Iranpour said Erickson didn't mention the Heitholt killing, but it seemed as though something had recently occurred to upset him.

"It was still vivid in his mind, whatever he was thinking," Iranpour said of *Erickson that night.

Iranpour said he and Erickson only had a couple beers, and that neither was intoxicated.

Heitholt was killed two years before the conversation between Iranpour and Erickson. A few months after the night Iranpour testified about, Erickson confessed to Columbia Police Department detectives about the crime.

Iranpour testified that in the time between Heitholt's killing and his conversation with Erickson, nothing was abnormal about Erickson's behavior — he didn't seem overly emotional or talk about regretting something, Iranpour said.

After closing arguments, Ferguson's father, Bill Ferguson, said he is optimistic Green will rule in his son's favor.

"We feel like it went very well," Bill Ferguson said. "(Ryan) is upbeat and positive."

But he also said he realizes that having his son's conviction vacated is not synonymous with an immediate release from prison.

"It's just getting started," Bill Ferguson said.

The attorneys have until June 15 to turn in their briefs discussing the evidence, and Green said he expects to make his decision shortly after their deadline. Bill Ferguson said that regardless of Green's decision, one side will appeal Green's ruling.

"It's like a baseball game," he said. "We're at about the fifth inning now."

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