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.
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.