COLUMBIA — At Tuesday evening's news conference, Ryan Ferguson's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, had words of praise for the "well crafted" ruling of the Western District Court of Appeals in vacating her client's convictions.
"This will be the leading case in habeas law in Missouri," she predicted.
It is a complicated ruling, even for legal minds, that isn't easily simplified.
Rodney Uphoff is an MU law professor who specializes in wrongful convictions. Here's how he interpreted the ruling on Tuesday:
Ryan Ferguson's conviction was based on the testimony of two key witnesses:
- Charles "Chuck" Erickson: Told police that he and Ryan Ferguson killed Kent Heitholt.
- Jerry Trump: Testified that he saw Ferguson and Erickson in the alley the night Heitholt was killed.
Ferguson already lost his direct appeal and unsuccessfully filed post-conviction motions challenging his conviction. His lawyer then filed a writ of habeas corpus challenging the legality of his imprisonment.
Appeals courts usually decline to hear certain issues in a writ of habeas corpus or bar them under procedural rules because the defendant failed to raise the issues in a timely manner. Courts do not want to allow defendants to ambush the court with new claims that should have been raised earlier.
So why did the Missouri Court of Appeals allow Ferguson to raise this new claim on appeal?
Courts have established three exceptions to the rule that bars defendants from raising claims too late. The Ferguson defense team had to convince the Court of Appeals that they met one of the three exceptions.
The relevant exception in the Ferguson case was the gateway to cause and prejudice exception. The Court of Appeals found as follows:
Under the U.S. Constitution and Missouri state law, prosecutors must provide the defense with all exculpatory evidence, which is evidence that tends to show the defendant is not guilty of a charge.
Exculpatory evidence also includes impeachment evidence, which is evidence that casts doubt on the credibility or reliability of a witness. This exculpatory evidence is also referred to as Brady material, because the Supreme Court in 1963 first imposed this disclosure obligation on prosecutors in the case of Brady v. Maryland.
In Kyles v. Whitley (1995), the court extended the Brady holding that a prosecutor must collect all exculpatory material from the police and turn it over to the defense.
The Court of Appeals found that the cause — the fact certain Brady evidence was not submitted to the defense — and the prejudice — the significance of the information withheld — met the "gateway to cause and prejudice" exception. Ferguson ultimately met this exception because he could not have raised this issue on appeal because Ferguson did not discover the prosecution had failed to disclose the Brady information until after the appeal had been decided.
What was the withheld information?
In the Ferguson case, Trump testified that he first recognized Ferguson and Erickson in a newspaper article his wife sent him while he was in jail. The paper was folded in half so that he only saw their faces and recognized them, but he did not see what the story was about: that the two had been arrested in connection with the slaying of Kent Heitholt. In a later interview with the state, Trump’s wife said she did not recall sending the newspaper article to her husband.
The state should have sent the information they gathered in the interview with Trump's wife to the defense, per the Brady Rule, but it did not.
In fact, the investigator who interviewed Barbara Trump never made a report of the interview. According to Uphoff, the failure to turn over Brady material happens too often and is not a problem unique to Missouri.
The prosecutor in the case, Kevin Crane, said he never saw an investigator's report. But because an investigator for his office conducted the interview, the state is still held accountable for that information. The investigator should have alerted the prosecutor so that he could alert the defense of the existence of the evidence.
What did the appeals court decide?
Once the appeals court determined the Brady Rule was violated, it conducted a materiality analysis to determine if the evidence withheld was significant enough to actually overturn the conviction. The judges concluded unanimously that the Brady material evidence withheld was so significant that it undermined the court's confidence in the conviction. In other words, it was not sure that if the jury had heard this information, that it would have believed Trump and convicted Ferguson.
With Trump’s testimony void, the only remaining testimony was Erickson’s, and that confession was seriously challenged. The fact that Erickson has since changed his testimony was not a critical part of the court's decision.
A court does not overturn a murder conviction lightly. The appeals court states in the ruling that:
It has serious doubts about Ferguson's guilt because without Trump's testimony the only evidence pointing to Ferguson is the statement given by Erickson.
It does not conclude that Ferguson is actually innocent.