COLUMBIA — A special prosecutor will decide whether Ryan Ferguson will be retried in a 2001 slaying after Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight said his office had a conflict of interest with the case.
Assistant Attorney General Susan Boresi was appointed as the special prosecutor Friday in an order by Judge Steve Ohmer of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court in St. Louis.
The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District vacated Ferguson's convictions Tuesday. Ferguson had been sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
The convictions were vacated because during Ferguson's 2005 trial, the prosecution, led by now-13th Circuit Judge Kevin Crane, didn't disclose information to the defense, in what is called a Brady violation. The state has 15 days from the day the opinion was issued to decide if it wants to retry Ferguson.
Knight's motion to appoint a special prosecutor cites Tuesday's opinion, noting that it relates "to a current and former staff member."
Knight was the assistant prosecuting attorney during Ferguson's trial, according to Missouri Case.net.
Defense attorney Jennifer Bukowsky said that situation normally wouldn't be a conflict of interest. She said that usually when a case comes back to trial court after the court of appeals vacates a decision due to a constitutional violation, the same prosecutor's office handles it.
"They're still on the same sides of the equation," she said.
Conflicts of interest usually come from attorneys not wanting to prosecute clients they may have helped defend in a private practice, or if a relative or someone they know gets arrested — not someone they've previously prosecuted, Bukowsky said.
Rodney Uphoff, an MU law professor who specializes in wrongful convictions, said Knight's decision is unusual but not unprecedented. He said it might be a good idea for an independent prosecutor to make the call about whether to retry Ferguson.
But the timing could be tough, Uphoff said. The prosecutor needs to decide within 15 days from the day the opinion was issued, which is easier for a prosecutor more familiar with the case.
Bukowsky said upcoming elections might be a factor in why Knight didn't want to handle the case.
"It's an election year, and if he refiles, a whole bunch of people will be mad, and if he doesn't, a whole bunch of people could be mad," she said.
Knight did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment Friday afternoon.
Boresi received her bachelor's degree in political science from MU and her law degree from the Saint Louis University School of Law. She has practiced in Illinois and Missouri, according to her faculty page on Saint Louis University's website, where she is listed as an adjunct professor.
She became an assistant attorney general in 1993 and is assigned to the Public Safety Unit as a special prosecutor, according to the university profile, and she concentrates on sex offenses with juvenile victims.
Circuit Judges Christine Carpenter, Gary Oxenhandler and Jodie Asel have recused themselves from the case because of conflicts of interest, according to Missouri Case.net.
Bukowsky said that because of this, if Ferguson is retried, the Missouri Supreme Court will most likely assign the judge.
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