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Cole County court denies Ferguson new trial

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 | 9:09 p.m. CDT; updated 5:33 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 4, 2012
Ryan Ferguson sits in a visitors room at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Ferguson who was convicted in 2005 has always maintained his innocence in the death of Kent Heitholt in 2001.

JEFFERSON CITY — Ryan Ferguson’s bid for a new trial suffered a setback Wednesday when Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green denied Ferguson's petition for a writ of habeas corpus, effectively denying him a new trial for now.

The ruling came 11 years after the slaying of Kent Heitholt, 48, a sports editor at the Columbia Tribune. Heitholt was found beaten and strangled in the parking lot of the Tribune just after 2 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001.

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Ferguson was found guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in 2005 for his role in the crime, based mostly on the testimony of Charles "Chuck" Erickson.

During a five-day habeas hearing in April, Ferguson's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, argued that Ferguson should be given a new trial because of recanted witness testimonies and alleged prosecutorial misconduct.

Erickson pleaded guilty in 2004 to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action and is serving a 25-year sentence for his role in the crime. Both Ferguson and Erickson were 17 at the time of the murder. 

Erickson testified at Ferguson's 2005 trial that it was Ferguson who strangled Heitholt in a parking lot adjacent to the newspaper building. He has since changed his story a number of times.

In 2009, Erickson gave a videotaped statement to Ferguson's defense attorneys. In the video, Erickson said that he alone killed Heitholt and that Ferguson was with him at the scene of the crime but had no role in the murder. Then during the April hearing, Erickson said that he had no recollection of committing the crime and that he was unsure of his or Ferguson's involvement. 

Jerry Trump, a janitor who testified to seeing Ferguson in the Tribune parking lot on the night of Heitholt's murder, also has recanted the testimony he gave during Ferguson’s trial. He alleged the testimony was coerced by then-Boone County Prosecuting Attorney, Kevin Crane, who is now a Boone County Circuit Judge.

The defense argued that the recantations were sufficient to cast doubt on Ferguson’s conviction and that there was no need to prove that the recantations were true or credible.

But Green dismissed that argument repeatedly in his ruling. "A recantation can be sufficient to entitle the petitioner to habeas relief, but not if the recantations are not credible," he wrote.

Green found problems with the credibility of Erickson’s recantations, writing: "Erickson’s recantation is a textbook example of why the law views recantations with suspicion and caution."

Green noted that Erickson’s original trial testimony was far more reliable than his "various inconsistent recantations."

The judge also describes in the ruling having viewed Erickson's court testimony on video and finding him to be truthful in contrast to the "self-serving" statements he made on the stand during April's evidentiary hearing.

"This Court finds that Mr. Erickson was testifying truthfully at the jury trial, but is completely fabricating his current stories," Green wrote.

The judge went further, suggesting that Erickson’s recantation was made with undue influence by Ferguson’s legal team.

"The record discloses a possibility of collusion (perhaps implied but nonetheless present) between the defendant (or his agent(s)) and this witness between the time of trial and time of retraction," he wrote.

The judge finds Trump's recantation credible but not evidence of prosecutorial misconduct by Crane.

"The recantation of Jerry Trump is problematic in that this Court does find he perjured himself at the jury trial but equally perjured himself at the April 2012 habeas hearing by falsely accusing Kevin Crane as the reason and source of his original perjury," Green wrote.

In the summary of his rulings, Greene wrote that the only relevant evidence was the recantations of Trump and Erickson.

"This Court finds as a matter of law that Trump’s recantation does not undermine this Court’s confidence in the correctness of the original jury trial verdict and judgment," Green said. 

Zellner could not be reached for comment. A person who answered the phone in her Chicago office said that Zellner was preparing a statement about the ruling.

The state's attorneys who argued against the defendant's petition, Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce and Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke, could not be reached for comment either.

Bill Ferguson, Ryan's father, said he was "shocked and appalled" by the ruling. He said the defense team was already taking the next step in the appeals process by filing a writ of habeas with the Western District Court of Appeals.

Ferguson said Zellner will continue to represent his son.    

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

 

 


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Comments

Michael Williams October 31, 2012 | 6:44 p.m.

Just finished my first read of the decision.

I came away with 5 main notions:

(1) Kathleen Zellner and cohorts may be in trouble with the Missouri Bar,
(2) Mr. Trump is in trouble for perjury,
(3) Erickson knew facts of the crime never published pre-trial....things I have never seen in any post-trial media publication (why not?).
(4) Testimony from the bar scene shows Erickson was lucid just prior to the time of the murder, and,
(5) These guys are guilty as hell.

I really enjoyed reading this decision. It's only the second time I have ever read a decision on appeal. This judge paid attention.

Wow. Sure convinced me!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 31, 2012 | 6:47 p.m.

PS: Missourian:

I have been critical of you in the past, but you did a fine public service publishing the decision....regardless of how one feels about the case.

Nice job.

It's the first time I've seen any local newspaper do this....and I think it's rare elsewhere.

Congrats.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor November 1, 2012 | 10:37 a.m.

Sorry to see the "blue wall" extends to the courts as well.

This is a sad day for justice.

This judge can actually write down on paper that he knows without a doubt that a mentally ill person that suffers from delusions and that is a known liar told the truth at one point and lied every other time he opened his mouth???

Wow! There goes this judges credibility!

What a joke! Except that a persons life is at stake.

This same judge says he finds the recantation of Trump credible, but that Trump must have had some other unknown reason for lying and perjuring himself other than being influenced by then prosecutor and now fellow judge Crane in order to get his guilty verdict that he needed for his career. If Trump wasn't trying to get himself out of trouble by lying for Crane exactly what would be his motive for perjuring himself and putting himself at risk for more legal trouble???

Another joke!

Anyone who believes this ruling is anything other than one court official covering anothers back should question their ability to handle their own affairs!

This does not get close to passing the smell test.

Lastly, with all due respect to the above poster, Erickson knew nothing of the crime scene or any details not released. This claim has been made by this same poster several times here with absolutely no evidence and each time I have asked the poster to watch the original interview by the detective. Erickson was fed everything he knew of the crime scene by the police. I have no idea why you think he knew details that were not released and not told him by the police. Did you talk to Erickson about it before he was questioned by the police? That would be a significant detail that you are leaving out. If you are sure enough to keep repeating this same accusation in here, surely you have some reason for feeling so sure of yourself. How did you come to know that Erickson knew details of the crime scene for certain???

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 1, 2012 | 3:39 p.m.

MikeM: "Anyone who believes this ruling is anything other than one court official covering another's (sic) back should question their ability to handle their own affairs!"
_________________

Well, I've done pretty well so far. AND, I don't think one court official is covering for another. Indeed, I think such an accusation on your part is ridiculous since if this judge had ruled in the way you wished, he'd be the greatest thing since sliced bread. You take his unfavorable decision as evidence for a coverup when you were fully prepared to take the opposite approach. Absurd. You're better than that to have such a reaction.

So, because of all these beliefs....no...I don't question my ability to handle my own affairs. Not one iota since I've actually demonstrated quite the opposite. So, your conclusion is wrong on that issue, also...at least in my case.

I assume you read the entire decision....start to finish. If not, you should.

The judge had ALL info at his disposal, including the precious interview that has you so concerned. I find the judge's opinion rationally prepared and logical; in my opinion, he destroys any and all critiques.

I also think he called Zellner's behavior and credibility into serious question; she may just have to answer for that. Trump is going back to jail for perjury. After reading this decision, I believe the original jury and believe all that followed is a fabrication that grasps at any straw. I'm sorry you don't agree, but I think both men are guilty as hell and will support them serving their prison terms in their entirety.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor November 1, 2012 | 4:37 p.m.

I like to spout off from time to time and this is one of those times. I am thouroughly convinced that this was a railroad by a dirty detective and prosecutor. There was hair and skin in the clenched hand and fingernails of the victim that was not from either of these two kids. There was a bloody crime scene and absolutley ZERO physical evidence connecting these kids to the scene. We have seen other dirty police and prosecutors around these parts, so this is not in the realm of the absurd. There is also a big difference between, "dirty dirty" like robbing drug dealers and taking bribes which I think is very, very uncommon and "dirty", pushing the limits, in this case stepping over them, to get a conviction, which I think is a little more common...

If this judge can tell when a delusional liar with mental health issues is telling the truth and when he is lying by reading transcripts and looking at video and be so certain as to be "beyond a reasonable doubt" he is wasting his time on the bench and should be in the CIA. Just Sayin'

Michael, I tried to not mention you by name because I have as much respect for you as anyone on these boards and I didn't want you to take my rant as a personal attack on you. Clearly we are at the opposite ends on this one. I am absolutely certain that you can handle your own affairs, but you may be the only one who is sure of guilt that can :-)

P.S. Where is Ellis? He was another respected member and I don't get in here enough to have kept up, but I don't see him anymore. Hope he is o.k.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 1, 2012 | 5:18 p.m.

MikeM; Thanks.

IMO, your first paragraph is just conjecture, an opinion searching for an explanation. And you have no evidence of collusion within the judicial system...an opinion in search of an explanation...although we have (in the decision) a judge that infers rather strongly some improprieties on the part of the petitioner's legal team since the first jury trial.

Quite frankly, after reading the decision, for the first time I'm viewing pleas by Zellner et. al. (and Spoon) with very significant skepticism.

If you've read the decision, then you know that the judge is simply following case law regarding recantations and other points re: new evidence brought up by the petitioner. My read of the decision says the judge is acting not only properly from a legal POV, but logically and wisely. 'Tis true, I'm speaking from a legally novice position, but I do understand his logic and plain language and it sure seems to me he made some rather pointed points.

I respect you, too, and submit we simply have to agree to not agree. I admit that my read of this decision had a VERY significant impact on my opinion, more so than any other writings.

It made me even more convinced of guilt.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 1, 2012 | 5:21 p.m.

MikeM: Oh, about Ellis.

I don't know where he is. Perhaps he just quit posting in light of the pay wall.

But he sure was a fine poster and worthy of respect.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams November 1, 2012 | 5:39 p.m.

MikeM: Speaking of hurricane Sandy........

The other day I said on these pages (I think it was on these pages) that victims of hurricane Sandy would probably get to work cleaning things up in contrast to New Orleans.

Maybe not so much:

http://politicker.com/2012/11/staten-isl...

Imagine that....politicians blaming others for their own planning failures. Whoda thunk it?

Hey, it's New York. Guess I shoulda known better. Mea culpa.

(Report Comment)
mike brown November 1, 2012 | 8:25 p.m.

Obviously this judge is covering for the criminal acts of another hillbilly judge. If you watched the first tapes of the Erickson interview by Barney and Goober you can tell Erickson knew NOTHING about the crime. He had read some stuff in the newspaper but he did not know where in the parking lot it happened, he identified the coworker as white just like the police had done in their police report, he did not know he victim had been strangled, but the police told him so, then they asked him if he knew with what and he guess bungie cord, then shirt then he was told a belt...he said they stole his wallet but that was found in the car, after two days of crime scene visits and coaching erickson still got it wrong. He said they went back to a bar that had long closed for one. Of course that last person we KNOW talked to the victim was never interviewed the night of the crime but was called later. He even claims to have returned to the scene and saw the body as the police found it, but the police had rolled the victim over by that time. he has claimed two versions of that night, with two different vehicles and two different parking places...he claimed he saw the two men two years later after the illegal arrest of ryan, but he didn't think anything of it that night...really? your boss was beaten to death in the parking lot at 2 am and you thought nothing of seeing two white boys in that same parking lot two minutes before? you cannot remember who you sold the car to? really? yeah missouri be proud of your police and your prosecutors and your judges...too bad you are even a state...we should drag you into the caribean to join the other banana republics. shame on all of you.

(Report Comment)

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