A judge denied a motion for a new trial for Ryan Ferguson Monday morning, sentencing Ferguson to 40 years in prison for killing Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
Ferguson, 21, was convicted of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder in connection with the November 2001 slaying of Heitholt. Boone County Circuit Judge Ellen Roper sentenced him to 10 years for the robbery charge and 30 years for murder to be served consecutively, accepting the recommendation of a Lincoln County jury.
The other man accused, Chuck Erickson, 21, testified against Ferguson at the trial as he had agreed in his plea bargain, implicating himself and Ferguson in the attack on Heitholt in the Tribune parking lot during a robbery. Erickson testified that he repeatedly struck Heitholt’s head with a tire tool and that Ferguson strangled him with Heitholt’s belt. Both Ferguson and Erickson were 17 years old and juniors at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the killing. The two were arrested two and a half years later.
Ferguson’s father, Bill Ferguson, said he was not surprised by the judge’s decision denying the request for a retrial and will immmediately launch an appeal, a process he said could take up to one year. Bill Ferguson said a new defense team will represent his son in the appellate court, though the Ferguson family had not decided who would replace lead defense attorney Charlie Rogers of Kansas City.
“We are exploring our options at this point,” Bill Ferguson said.
The motion for a new trial reiterated the defense’s trial contention that Erickson’s testimony was unreliable and that it was overly influenced by Columbia police and Boone County prosecuting attorney Kevin Crane. Ferguson has maintained his innocence since his arrest in March 2004.
Ferguson spoke directly to Judge Roper at his sentencing, saying he believes the justice system failed him, his family and the Heitholt family.
“The justice system has let some horrible person run free. I don’t see how Mr. Crane can live with himself with that,” Ferguson said. “One day the truth will come out and find that I am innocent.”
Ferguson, who has been held in Boone County Jail since his arrest, was ordered to be moved to the Department of Corrections where he will begin serving his sentence. Co-defense attorney Kathryn Benson said Ferguson would likely serve 85 percent of the time specified in each charge.
Erickson will be sentenced this afternoon. It is expected that he will be sentenced to 25 years in prison for murder and robbery, as stated in his plea bargain.