Ryan Ferguson’s appeal of his 2005 conviction in the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt hinges on credibility — that of a dog used to track blood from the crime scene.
Ferguson, 22, was found guilty of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder on Oct. 21, 2005, by a Lincoln County jury. Boone County Circuit Judge Ellen Roper sentenced him to 40 years imprisonment for his role in the 2001 murder of Heitholt.
Charles. T. Erickson, 22, was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for his role in the slaying.
Heitholt was found beaten and strangled to death in the Tribune’s parking lot in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2001, by two maintenance workers. More than two years later, Erickson told police that he had begun having “snapshot” memories of the slaying and believed he and Ferguson committed the crime. They were 17-year-old students at Rock Bridge High School at the time of the slaying.
On Wednesday, Ferguson’s attorney, Public Defender Ellen Flottman, argued before a three-judge panel of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals that Ferguson was denied a fair trial because his attorney was not given the chance to call the canine officer or either of the two officers that accompanied the K-9 unit the night of Heitholt’s slaying.
At the scene, the police used a dog to follow the path of the killer, who had stepped in a pool of Heitholt’s blood. But Erickson’s statements about the path he and Ferguson took after the killing differed from police testimony about the path the police dog followed.
Had the canine officer or either of the two other officers been allowed to testify, Flottman argued, they could have testified about the dog’s credibility — its training, its behavior that night and its proficiency in tracking blood.
But Assistant Missouri Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang told the court that there was plenty of evidence at Ferguson’s trial that the canine unit took a different route than the one described by Erickson. Furthermore, he argued, the trial court was right in refusing to allow the canine officer or the other two officers to testify because Ferguson’s trial lawyer waited until too long to ask the court to allow their testimony. Mackelprang added that had the testimony been allowed, the prosecution would not have had time to prepare to cross-examine the officers.
In several instances, Erickson’s statements to police were inconsistent with the physical evidence in the case. By the time Ferguson went on trial, Erickson had agreed to testify against him in exchange for a reduced sentence for his role in the slaying. At trial, Erickson testified that he and Ferguson took a path that followed the police dog’s path more closely.
Flottman also raised the issue of the instructions to the jury, which was told that a criminal defendant’s intoxication doesn’t lessen his responsibility for his actions. She told the judges that there was no evidence that Ferguson was intoxicated. In her written motion for appeal, Flottman said the instruction led to a “miscarriage of justice, because it likely confused the jury or misled them to believe that Ryan admitted some wrongdoing and was attempting to escape liability based on intoxication.”
But Mackelprang argued that Erickson testified that Ferguson had been drinking that night, and that the jury could infer that he was intoxicated based on that testimony.
After the hearing, which lasted just over half an hour, Ferguson’s parents said they were pleased with Flottman’s argument of the appeal and were anxious to hear the ruling.
“I’m hoping the panel of judges can see through some of the lies and deception,” said Leslie Ferguson, Ryan Ferguson’s mother.
No one from the Heitholt family was in the courtroom for the hearing.
The court is likely to decide within three to six months whether to order a new trial for Ferguson or uphold his conviction.