Murder defendant Ryan Ferguson took the stand Thursday and — looking from his attorney to the jury — said he did not kill Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in November 2001.
Ferguson, 21, was arrested along with Charles Erickson on March 10, 2004, in connection with the beating and strangulation of Heitholt in the parking lot of the Tribune the morning after Halloween 2001. He was charged with first-degree murder and second-degree robbery in connection with the killing.
Soft-spoken and somber on the stand Thursday, Ferguson described a night of partying at a downtown bar with Erickson that ended with Ferguson going home and telephoning a girl.
But Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane — taking a page out of the defense’s playbook — sought in cross-examination to show that Ferguson’s recollection of the details of that night are unreliable. Crane asked Ferguson to explain why after he was arrested he didn’t tell police about phone calls he says he made sitting on a curb outside his parents’ home on Lloyd Drive in west Columbia, more than a 10-minute drive from the downtown parking lot where Heitholt was killed.
“I never thought I’d be arrested for a crime I didn’t commit,” Ferguson said. “Would you think you’d be arrested for a crime you didn’t commit?”
Crane shot back, “I didn’t commit one.”
“Neither did I,” Ferguson replied.
Spectators on the defense’s side of the courtroom burst into applause, prompting a sharp warning from Boone County Circuit Judge Ellen Roper.
Asked by co-defense attorney Kathryn Benson why he’d decided to testify on his own behalf, Ferguson said softly, “I wanted to show my innocence. I thought it was the right thing to do.”
He told jurors he picked up Erickson
after leaving a costume party and went to the now-defunct By George’s bar on Broadway where his sister and her roommate got them into the club. The two, both 17 at the time and students at Rock Bridge High School, had a couple of drinks each then left the bar and headed home at about 1:20 a.m. — more than an hour before the 911 call was received at 2:26 a.m. about a person in distress in the Tribune parking lot.
After dropping off Erickson, Ferguson said, he drove home and began making phone calls to friends before going to bed sometime between 2:10 and 2:30 a.m.
Benson, citing cell phone records that were entered into evidence earlier Thursday, asked Ferguson when he began making the calls. Ferguson corroborated his phone records that show he called Holly Admire at 1:41 a.m., spoke to her for four minutes and then made several other phone calls that ended at 2:09 a.m., a minute after Heitholt signed off his computer at the Tribune, according to testimony earlier this week.
Ferguson said he then went to bed.
Admire testified that she did speak to Ferguson at that time and that she heard nothing strange during her conversation with him.
Crane sought repeatedly to show that Ferguson’s memory of Halloween and the two days after is selective. Asked whether he attended school on Nov. 1, Ferguson said he wasn’t sure but that he had called in sick in the past.
“You don’t remember what you did (that day), but you remember where you parked at By George’s” the night before, Crane said.
In testimony Monday and Tuesday, Kansas City defense attorney Charlie Rogers attempted to poke holes and highlight inconsistencies in the testimony of Erickson, the prosecution’s key witness. Erickson pleaded guilty in November 2004 to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action in exchange for his testimony against Ferguson, whom he says strangled Heitholt. Testifying Wednesday night, medical examiner Eddie Adelstein said that Heitholt died from asphyxiation from strangling and not by the multiple blows to the head that preceded it.
Also testifying Thursday, the defense’s forensic scientist, Ronald Singer, said he disagreed with the prosecution’s forensics expert’s analysis of the blood spatter pattern above the driver’s side rear tire. Detective Jeff Nichols testified Wednesday that the pattern was caused by cast-off stains from a weapon being struck in a downward motion.
But Singer said a cast-off pattern cannot be caused by a downward motion — only by the recoil of a weapon that is already covered with blood.
Another co-defense counsel, Jeremy Weis, continued to try to chip away at the prosecution’s account of motive in the case — that Erickson and Ferguson attacked Heitholt during a robbery because they’d run out of drinking money at By George’s.
Calling Ferguson’s sister, Kelly, 26, to the stand, Weiss asked her about that night at By George’s and whether she had money that night, as Erickson testified. Kelly Ferguson said she doesn’t normally carry money to bars because “guys” buy her drinks. She also corroborated earlier testimony about By George’s 1:30 a.m. closing time.
The subject came up earlier Thursday after Roper agreed to allow testimony from a bartender and a patron who were at the bar that night. The time frame is important because Erickson testified that after the attack on Heitholt, he and Ferguson returned to By George’s and drank there for an hour or two.
Christopher Canada, the bartender, told Roper that the bar always closed at 1:30 a.m.
Melissa Griggs, a patron, testified that she was also at the bar on Halloween night 2001 and that it closed at 1:30.
The defense was expected to finish calling witnesses today.