Ferguson disputes murder conviction

The defense seeks a new trial or a dismissal of the jury’s verdict in the death of Kent Heitholt.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:40 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Columbia man convicted in October of second-degree murder for killing a newspaper sports editor four years ago is seeking a new trial or a dismissal of the jury’s verdict.

Ryan Ferguson, 21, was found guilty in the death of Kent Heitholt, a Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor who was beaten and strangled in the newspaper parking lot on the morning of Nov. 1, 2001, hours after Ferguson and a friend went on an underage drinking spree on Halloween.

A Lincoln County jury deliberated for less than five hours on Oct. 21 before returning with a lesser verdict against Ferguson, who was initially charged with first-degree murder.

On Tuesday, Ferguson’s attorneys filed a motion in Boone County Circuit Court seeking a judgment of acquittal or a new trial.

They outlined 16 complaints, ranging from the “utterly uncorroborated testimony” of Charles Erickson, Ferguson’s high school classmate and the prosecution’s star witness, to a charge that Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane knowingly “suppressed” state liquor control records that would refute Erickson’s contention that the pair returned to a Columbia nightclub after killing Heitholt.

“The inconsistencies in Erickson’s statements brought out in cross-examination are too extensive to exhaustively list,” wrote Ferguson defense attorneys Kathryn Benson, Charles Rogers and Jeremy Weis.

The trial centered on testimony from Erickson, who said he initially repressed his recollection of the killing but began to recall details two years later after reading news accounts and traveling past the crime scene.

Heitholt, 48, was hit with a tire iron and then strangled as he left the newspaper about 2:10 a.m. Earlier that night, he celebrated his fifth anniversary with the Tribune.

In exchange for his testimony against Ferguson, Erickson pleaded guilty in November 2004 to second-degree murder and faces a sentence of 25 years in prison.

In Ferguson’s case, the jury recommended a sentence of 30 years in prison on the murder conviction and another 10 years on a conviction of first-degree robbery.

Judge Ellen Roper will consider the motion for a new trial and also decide whether those sentences run concurrently or consecutively at a Dec. 5 hearing.

Crane, who had not yet seen the appeal when contacted for comment, said he would respond with a court filing of his own.

“I think it was a well-tried case,” he said. “The defense did a good job, and the judge made the correct ruling.”

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