Few recent local events have generated as much community response as the slaying of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. The case went unsolved for almost three years. Then two Columbia teens were picked up on a CrimeStoppers tip, one of them, Charles Erickson, claiming that he’d had dreams about his involvement in the November 2001 crime.
The other teen was Ryan Ferguson, who claimed innocence throughout his trial. He was eventually convicted of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
After his conviction, Ferguson’s family — led by his father, Bill Ferguson — picked up the banner of his innocence claim. A Web site named freeryanferguson.com was created. Then the national news program “48 Hours Mystery” came to town and did a segment called “Dream Killer,” which focused on the centerpiece of the Ferguson family’s argument: that Erickson was coached and bullied into believing he and Ryan Ferguson had killed Heitholt.
Most recently, the family posted a YouTube video showing Erickson’s interrogation by Columbia police.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri upheld Ferguson’s conviction under a Missouri Supreme Court Rule that states that “in a case in which decision is unanimous and all judges believe that no jurisprudential purpose would be served by a written opinion, disposition may be made by a written summary order.”
“It’s my understanding that the reason there was no opinion published is that there was no precedential value,” said Dan Knight, the Boone County chief prosecuting attorney who helped former prosecutor Kevin Crane on the Ferguson case. In other words, the court thought the law was so clear-cut that issuing a formal opinion in Ferguson’s case would be unnecessary.
Bill Ferguson said Tuesday that he was not surprised by the court’s decision.
“They can only look at the mistakes the judges have made in the past,” he said. “We’ve started our own investigation and have new evidence but couldn’t get it admitted in court.”
He said the family would consult with its attorneys and decide on the next step.
Both Knight and Ellen Flottman, the public defender who argued Ferguson’s appeal, agreed that the testimony of Charles Erickson implicating Ferguson was the crux of the state’s case. But issues of fact, like whether Erickson’s testimony was credible, are not issues the appeals court was allowed to address. That’s because trial judges and juries, who actually get to see and hear witnesses and evidence, are in a better position to determine issues of fact than appeals court judges.
Erickson is serving a 25-year sentence.
Flottman explained that to reverse a conviction for insufficient evidence, an appeals court cannot simply put itself in the place of the jury and ask whether it would have handed down a different verdict.
Flottman said appeals courts won’t second-guess a jury’s verdict unless they conclude that — even believing all the witnesses and evidence in the prosecution’s favor — there still wasn’t enough to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“That’s a very high bar,” she said.
Another issue that had caused many to question the strength of the case against Ferguson was the lack of physical evidence. Knight said television shows like “CSI” have given the public the wrong impression about the kinds of evidence frequently found at crime scenes. DNA, hair and fingerprints are not always present to link suspects to crimes.
“It was my job to counter the ‘CSI’ effect,” Knight said. “I had witnesses that testified about why hair might not have been left from the suspects, why DNA and fingerprints might not have been recovered.”
In the end, he said, it was Erickson’s testimony that swayed the jury.
“Going into the trial, we had no doubts about the defendant’s guilt,” he said, “Erickson testified, and he was very persuasive.”