COLUMBIA — Bill Ferguson, father of Ryan Ferguson, is preparing to embark on a "Free Ryan Tour," a multi-state effort to draw public attention to his son's case.
Driving a four-door Toyota decorated with his son's picture, alongside the words "Free Ryan Ferguson," Bill Ferguson will visit 14 states, including New York, Kentucky and Texas. He plans to set off immediately after Ryan Ferguson's lawyers make his case for a retrial before the Western District Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
Bill Ferguson said he will do interviews with local radio stations, but will also be available for speaking engagements and other media interviews.
"Our No. 1 priority with the tour is to create more awareness," Bill Ferguson said. "We are traveling from (Missouri) to New York and then to L.A. to enhance his exposure."
Ryan Ferguson is serving a 40-year sentence for the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Ferguson was convicted in 2005 after a friend, Chuck Erickson, said he remembered that he and Ferguson murdered Heitholt. Jerry Trump, a custodian for the Tribune who found Heitholt's body, identified the pair. Erickson and Trump later recanted their testimony.
Judges aren't allowed to let publicity influence their handling of a case, said Tom Perot, a Missouri attorney who specializes in criminal cases. But Bill Ferguson said the publicity will still help his son's case.
"It’s just to help publicize this tragedy of justice," Bill Ferguson said.
A judge will never admit to having prior knowledge of a case, Perot said, but in Ryan’s case it’s hard for a judge to avoid the coverage.
"Anytime there’s extensive media coverage on a case it enters everyone’s mind, including the judge," he said. "Everyone knows about Ryan Ferguson and I think judges subconsciously let that media coverage affect their case, even if it’s a small amount."
The tour is the latest of several publicity efforts from Bill Ferguson and other supporters.
In November, Bill Ferguson paid for a billboard offering a reward for tips about the case. An anonymous donor paid to fly a "Free Ryan Ferguson" banner above Missouri football games, the state fair and a St. Louis Cardinal's game, Bill Ferguson said. The effort also has a Facebook page that is updated several times a day and has garnered more than 50,000 likes.
Ferguson’s case has been covered by several news outlets, including NBC Dateline, the New Yorker and the Today Show.
On his website, Bill Ferguson urges supporters to write to Gov. Jay Nixon about their opinion and knowledge of the case. He said he wants the government to know that the public understands the history of Ferguson's case.
"We want them to know that they can't sweep this under the carpet," Bill Ferguson said.
On Feb. 14, Ryan Ferguson filed a writ of habeas corpus petition, citing the recantations of Trump and Erickson as evidence that he wasn't given a fair trial. If the petition is granted, Ferguson will get a retrial.
At Tuesday’s oral arguments, Ferguson’s attorneys and Jefferson City Correctional Center Superintendent Dave Dormire will each have 15 minutes to present their cases. Ferguson’s attorneys will then have five minutes to reply to Dormire.
Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago attorney representing Ferguson, declined to comment Friday, but previously told the Missourian that Ferguson won't be present at the oral argument.
"Ryan is very optimistic and very upbeat about Tuesday," Bill Ferguson said. "He just wants to move on past this phase and hopefully on to a new trial."