The third day of the Ryan Ferguson murder trial focused on analysis of the scene where Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was found slain, as jurors heard testimony about forensic evidence and saw a video showing Heitholt lying face up in a pool of his own blood.
Ferguson, who turned 21 on Wednesday, is accused of first-degree murder and second-degree robbery in connection with Heitholt’s killing. Ferguson’s high school friend, Charles Erickson, 21, implicated Ferguson in the killing and accepted a plea bargain of 25 years in prison in exchange for his testimony against Ferguson, who maintains his innocence.
Heitholt’s wife, Deborah Evangelista, and daughter, Kali, were present in the courtroom, though Kali said during a recess that she had to keep her head down throughout the footage of the crime scene.
The bloodstained clothes Heitholt wore when he was killed hung on a silver rack in the center of the courtroom.
After showing the video of the crime scene, the prosecution called several crime analysts, whose testimonies focused largely on physical evidence, including blood spatter, fingerprints and DNA. The analysts said none of the evidence recovered ties Erickson or Ferguson to the scene of the killing.
The prosecution argued that guilt should not hinge on the presence — or absence — of physical evidence. The defense countered that the evidence recovered from the scene excludes both Ferguson and Erickson as suspects in the killing.
Erickson, who testified Monday and Tuesday, says that he and Ferguson, both of whom were 17 and juniors at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the slaying, attacked Heitholt in a robbery attempt. He testified that Ferguson came up with the plan to rob someone and told Erickson to strike Heitholt with a tire tool they’d taken from Ferguson’s car.
Columbia police Detective Jeff Nichols explained his interpretation of the pattern of blood stains in and on the victim’s car.
Nichols also explained that the blood trail, highlighted by a Luminol test, showed two sets of footprints leading from the parking lot. The footprints, however, were not clear enough to match with shoe tread patterns.
Nichols later defended himself during the defense’s cross-examination, in which defense attorney Charlie Rogers aggressively questioned Nichols about the interrogative tactics he used on Erickson the day of his arrest in March 2004.
Referring to taped interrogations, Rogers said Nichols ignored statements from Erickson that suggested his uncertainty about his involvement in the killing.
“You didn’t tell (Erickson) to tell you what he knew,” Rogers said to Nichols. “You told him, ‘You did this. Don’t tell us it was fabricated. Don’t tell us it was a dream.’”
Nichols replied that Erickson was having a hard time remembering the details, but he said it is uncommon for someone to confess to committing a murder and want to talk about it.
Erickson told Nichols in the tape, which was shown in court Monday, that he was making presumptions based on what he had read in the newspaper and that he does not remember much from the night.
“It was time for Mr. Erickson to get control of his thoughts,” Nichols said.
Referring to photographs and the videotape of the crime scene, Nichols explained to the jury how blood might have ended up on a hubcap and the interior of Heitholt’s car.
The trajectory of the blood, Nichols said, suggested that the victim was standing on the driver’s side of the car with the door open.
The “unique stain pattern” near the gas cap, he said, suggested a “cast-off stain,” which is a spatter of blood transferred from a weapon to a surface. The blow to Heitholt’s head likely came from a downward motion with some kind of blunt object, he said.
The jury heard testimony earlier Wednesday from Robert Thompson, a former Tribune sports editor who says he found Heitholt after he was killed and told two janitors to call 911. Thompson said he and another sports writer rolled Heitholt over to check his pulse.
But Thompson said he did not see anyone in the parking lot. “I was focused on Kent,” he said. “I was just frantic trying to help him.”
Dawn Kliethermes, an criminalist from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, testified that the only identifiable fingerprints recovered from Heitholt’s car belonged to either Heitholt or his daughter. Other prints were recovered but no matches were found.
Another criminalist from the highway patrol, Carey Maloney, testified that none of the DNA recovered from the scene matched that of Ferguson or Erickson.