*Updates to this story include comments from Bill Ferguson and others close to the case, as well as the attorney general's office. Information will be updated throughout the day. The full opinion is embedded at the bottom of this story.
**This story has also been updated to correct the timeline for how and when Ryan Ferguson could be released from prison.
COLUMBIA — The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District published an opinion Tuesday morning granting Ryan Ferguson's request that his 2005 conviction for the murder of Kent Heitholt be vacated.
Ferguson has been serving a 40-year sentence in the Jefferson City Correctional Center for second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in the slaying. He has been imprisoned for almost eight years.
Heitholt, a sports editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune, was killed on Halloween night 2001 while leaving the Tribune building. He was strangled with his own belt. Ryan Ferguson had been partying at a nearby club but has consistently denied being involved with the killing since his friend, Charles Erickson, said he and Ferguson committed the crime.
Erickson is serving a 25-year sentence.
The state can ask the Missouri Supreme Court to accept transfer of the case. Terence Lord, clerk of the Western District Court of Appeals, said it could be one to three months before Ferguson is released. If the state does not file any motions with the Western District Court of Appeals in the next 15 days, the court will then issue a mandate and the Boone County prosecutor will have 15 days to decide whether to retry Ferguson. If the state does not decide to retry him, Ferguson will be immediately and unconditionally released.
Ferguson's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, filed a motion with the Appeals Court on Tuesday morning, requesting that her client be released on bond. The motion had not yet been reviewed by a judge, Lord said.
Bill Ferguson, who worked for years to free his son, said he was elated by the decision.
"If (the state is) smart, they will agree not to try him again," Ferguson said.
The appellate court based its ruling heavily on a Brady violation related to the testimony of Jerry Trump, stating it did not need to address any further complaints by Ferguson. A Brady violation is when the prosecution withholds information from the defense.
In the original trial, Jerry Trump said he identified Ferguson when his wife sent him a newspaper while he was in prison for a parole violation. He said the paper was folded in a way that he saw pictures of Ferguson and Erickson but did not see the headline about them being arrested, and he immediately recognized them as the men he saw that night.
The state failed to disclose the fact that an investigator had interviewed Trump's wife, Barbara. In that interview, she reluctantly said she didn't remember sending her husband a newspaper while he was in prison. The court found that this information was vital in judging the credibility of Jerry Trump as a witness. It also revealed that the state contacted Jerry Trump while he was in prison, which the state had not disclosed previously.
At the evidentiary hearing, Trump said Kevin Crane, then chief prosecutor and now a 13th Circuit judge, called him while in prison and said it would be "helpful" for him to identify Ferguson and Erickson.
Crane's investigator Bill Haws talked to Trump while he was still in prison and also interviewed Barbara Trump. The prosecution is legally obligated to disclose all interviews to the defense attorneys. Haws did not file a report on these interviews, and therefore Crane didn't necessarily know they took place, according to the opinion.
However, the state is still held accountable for the failure to report and disclose, according to case law.
In an interview Tuesday, Crane said he would re-examine the testimony from the evidentiary hearing to determine the timeline of when his office talked to Barbara Trump. Crane said he never personally talked to her.
"I am so thankful for the supporters that have stuck with us for 9 1/2 years," Bill Ferguson said. "If you wait long enough, you always get justice. He should have never been convicted."
Bill Ferguson and his son's attorney, Zellner, who was on her way to Columbia on Tuesday morning, said they would talk more about the decision at a news conference at Tiger Hotel.
Zellner said she had planned to visit Ferguson in prison before heading to the news conference. She talked to him Tuesday morning and said he was speechless and thrilled.
Zellner, who has never lost a wrongful-conviction case and took the Ferguson case pro bono, said it was her most problematic case. Her office got two other people out of prison while working on Ferguson's case.
She praised the thoroughness of the opinion, saying it was well reasoned.
"I had great confidence in this court," Zellner said. "That opinion — the detail and the effort — is really remarkable. I think, from my perspective, we confirmed that the system works."
A spokeswoman for Chief Prosecutor Dan Knight's office said he has seen the decision but wouldn't comment until he has read it and discussed it with the Missouri Attorney General's office.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General's office released a statement about the ruling.
“The Attorney General’s office will review the court’s decision and consult with the Boone County prosecutor’s office in the coming days regarding appropriate next steps to take in this matter.”
Tribune Managing Editor Jim Robertson said he was thinking of the Heitholt family after hearing of the decision.
"I think the system works, I've said it before. They found a serious error on the part of the prosecution," Robertson said.
He said he hadn't talked to the family for a while.
The testimony at Ryan Ferguson's trial that convinced a jury of his guilt was mainly from two eyewitnesses, who have both recanted their testimonies.
In September, Zellner and Assistant Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang debated in front of a three-judge panel in the Western District Court of Appeals to determine whether Ferguson should be granted a new trial.
The hearing focused on possible Brady violations, which might have impaired Ryan Ferguson's attorney's ability to provide an effective defense. Zellner said these violations included the prosecution not informing Ferguson's attorney of contact with a key witness. Mackelprang argued the defense could have taken steps to find holes in their case earlier.
The judges stopped Zellner when she mentioned the lack of physical evidence in the case — fingerprints and blood at the scene did not match Ryan Ferguson — and the recantation of two key witnesses, wanting to focus on the Brady violations instead.
But after, Zellner said the recantations were key.
Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump are the two witnesses who recanted their testimonies.
Erickson had been partying with Ryan Ferguson the night of the murder and in 2004 started having dreams that the two committed the killing. They were underage but had been drinking at a local club. Erickson also admitted to using cocaine, Adderall and marijuana that night.
Erickson received a 25-year sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action.
In 2009, Erickson taped a sworn statement that he committed the robbery and murder alone. Erickson testified at the 2012 evidentiary hearing that he had no memory of the killing whatsoever.
Trump, a janitor at the Columbia Daily Tribune at the time, saw two men the night of the killing and testified at the original trial that one of them was Ryan Ferguson. He recanted his testimony at the evidentiary hearing, stating he only identified Ryan Ferguson because he thought it was what the prosecutor, Kevin Crane, wanted.
Ryan Ferguson has sought to get his conviction overturned more than a dozen times but has been denied by the Western District Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court, according to a timeline in the habeas corpus petition. Here is a timeline of the case.