Charles Erickson, who told police in 2004 that he and Ryan Ferguson killed Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, is seeking to be released from prison where he has served nearly 15 years of a 25-year sentence for the murder.
On Tuesday, Erickson’s Kansas City-based attorney, Landon Magnusson, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, a civil action that asks the court to determine whether a petitioner’s imprisonment is lawful. The petition was filed in Pike County Circuit Court because the prison where Erickson is incarcerated, Northeast Correctional Center, is in that county.
Erickson was 20 years old when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action in November 2004. Ryan Ferguson, also 20 at the time, pleaded not guilty to the same charges and was convicted by a jury on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery October 2017.
After a lengthy legal fight in several courts, Ferguson’s convictions were vacated in November 2013, and he was released from prison almost immediately. He’d served almost a decade in prison.
“Charlie has had many days and nights of hopelessness,” said Marianne Erickson, his mother, in a phone interview. “This petition brings back hope — hope that he can be free and live a good life and come home.”
The petition lays out, in 85 pages of meticulous detail, the case for Erickson’s release. It alleges that Erickson is innocent and that police and prosecutors took advantage of his mental health, poor memory and addiction issues to persuade him that he’d committed murder. It cites new evidence that has surfaced since his 2004 guilty plea.
Heitholt, 48, was found beaten and strangled near his car in the parking lot of the Tribune in November 2001.
One of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Tribune janitor Jerry Trump, recanted his testimony given during Ferguson’s trial that he saw Ferguson and Erickson in the Tribune parking lot.
The petition also cites the complete lack of physical evidence tying Erickson to the crime scene, as did Ferguson’s legal efforts to be released.
But the Columbia Police Department and Boone County prosecutors took a “no-holds-barred approach” to get Erickson to confess to the crime, the petition alleges, citing numerous instances where the prosecutor’s office made no records of contradictory statements from witnesses.
“They withheld evidence. They fabricated evidence. And they unconstitutionally coerced Charles to falsely confess and plead guilty,” the petition states.
Kevin Crane, current Boone County Circuit Judge, was the Boone County prosecutor at the time. Crane was initially named in the $100 million civil rights lawsuit filed by Ferguson, though he was later dropped from the suit. A $10 million settlement was reached in that lawsuit in July 2017.
The petition also argues Erickson is entitled to habeas corpus relief because his guilty plea was not voluntarily and knowingly made. His plea was coerced under intense interrogation that exploited his “psychological and cognitive vulnerabilities,” according to the petition.
Among those vulnerabilities were undiagnosed psychological disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, the petition states.
“The record is clear — the totality of the circumstances shows Charles’ guilty plea is constitutionally unacceptable,” the petition states.
Magnusson, Erickson’s attorney, said in a phone interview that he believes he has crafted a strong argument but that success isn’t 100 percent certain.
“A habeas petition is like the ‘Hail Mary’ of getting out of prison,” Magnusson said.
While he is 100 percent confident of Erickson’s innocence, Magnusson said he and Erickson are working within a system that has already failed Erickson. The Midwest Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal group that works to overturn wrongful convictions, took on Erickson’s case in 2016. They asked Magnusson to work the case, and he took it on pro bono, he said.
Magnusson noted that Ferguson was denied release four times before his second writ of habeas corpus was approved by the Western District Court of Appeals.
The filing of the writ of habeas corpus came more than two years after Erickson’s previous attorney told the Missourian he would file it, five years after Ferguson was released and nearly 15 years after Erickson was first sent to prison.
For Marianne Erickson, the wait has been difficult.
“For Charlie and our family — but particularly for Charlie, it’s been excruciatingly painful and worrisome,” she said.
But, after seeing the petition for the first time Saturday, Marianne Erickson said she’s confident her son will be exonerated.
A hearing in Erickson’s case was scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday in the Pike County Courthouse, according to online court records.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.