Ferguson case goes to the jury

Friday, October 21, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:07 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Ryan Ferguson’s fate was in the hands of a jury Friday afternoon, as the defense rested its case and the jury began deliberating on whether the 21-year-old killed Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane began his closing argument with a note of sympathy for jury members, who were brought in from Lincoln County because of the local publicity surrounding Heitholt’s killing.

“After all you’ve heard about Columbia this week, I bet you are ready to get back to Troy,” Crane said before a packed courthouse. One juror nodded vigorously.

Crane then reviewed the facts of the case and the testimony of his key witness, Charles Erickson, 21, who confessed to a role in the Nov. 1, 2001 slaying. The two were arrested two and a half years after the killing.

Erickson testified in court Monday and Tuesday as part of a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action in exchange for a reduced sentence of 25 years in prison. Ferguson faces life in prison for first-degree murder and second-degree robbery.

“There is no evidence at all that Chuck Erickson did this crime by himself. That couldn’t have happened,” Crane said.

Defense attorney Charlie Rogers countered in his closing argument that Crane had failed to meet the prosecution’s burden of proof. He urged the jurors to look at the standard of reasonable doubt.

“If you do that, this is not a difficult case,” Rogers said. “Not one iota of physical evidence indicates that Chuck Erickson or Ryan Ferguson were present at that scene, had any contact with Kent Heitholt, had any contact with Kent Heitholt’s car.”

Erickson testified earlier this week that he and Ferguson had been drinking at a Broadway bar Nov. 1, 2001, and had run out of money. Erickson said that it was Ferguson’s idea to commit a robbery, and that the pair assaulted Heitholt as he was getting into his car in the Tribune’s parking lot.

Erickson testifed that after he beat Heitholt with a tire tool, he saw Ferguson standing over Heitholt, strangling him with his own belt.

Crane seized on the detail and on Boone County Deputy Medical Examiner Eddie Adelstein’s testimony that Heitholt died of strangulation in encouraging the jury to return a guilty verdict for first-degree murder, which requires that the killing was done after “deliberation.”

“His belt was ripped off,” Crane said. “That’s an act done after contemplation with the idea of killing him.”

Throughout the week, Rogers focused on discrediting Erickson’s testimony, noting the inconsistencies between what he said in court and in earlier interviews and suggesting that his memory was influenced by details provided by police.

To that end, the defense’s last witness, whose testimony lasted all of Friday morning and some of the afternoon, was Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in human memory who teaches at the University of California-Irvine and has testified in hundreds of criminal and civil trials. She told the jury that the taped interview of Erickson’s first interogration shows investigators using leading suggestions that could have imposed false memories in Erickson’s mind.

Loftus added that such false memories can become stronger over time or if reinforced by external suggestions, like newspapers and conversations with other people. She said repressed memory is a “hand-me-down Freudian idea” without scientific merit.

Crane argued in cross-examination and closing arguments that there were no direct suggestions to originally make Erickson think that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt.

“What’s in his mind is his, and he remembers ... and it’s eating at him,” Crane said.

Crane said that even if details were imposed, Erickson’s overall memory of the night -- “the essence” -- was present at the time of the taped interrogation.

Rogers, in his closing argument, questioned why the prosecution never called Columbia police Detective John Short, the lead investigator in the case. He reminded the jury that a hair was found in Heitholt’s hand that matched neither Erickson’s nor Ferguson’s hair.

Rogers also attacked Erickson’s statement that the two teens went back to the bar after the killing. Two witnesses testified earlier this week that the bar closed at 1:30 a.m., before Heitholt was killed.

“What is there, other than the say-so of Chuck Erickson, to give any credence to that account?” Rogers asked the jury.

The jury began deliberating at about 4:15 p.m. and could continue its deliberations Saturday, if it fails to reach a verdict tonight.

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