COLUMBIA — Twelve years ago Thursday, Charles Erickson told police that he and Ryan Ferguson were responsible for the death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, who was found beaten and strangled in the newspaper’s parking lot in the early hours of Nov. 1, 2001.
Now — after 12 years of incarceration, three recantations and the release of Ferguson from prison — Erickson will set out on the only remaining route to get out of prison before the end of his 25-year sentence or a parole date.
Erickson’s Columbia-based attorney, Gary Brotherton, said he will file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Pike County Circuit Court in the next few months. The petition will make the case that Erickson is being held illegally because he is innocent and because there were multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct during the investigation. Among other claims, Brotherton said the petition will challenge the techniques used by Columbia police to interview Erickson and obtain his confession in 2004.
Erickson pleaded guilty in November 2004 to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action in exchange for a reduced sentence, contingent on his testimony against Ferguson.
“I feel like my due process rights were violated,” Erickson said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Like every other citizen, I have the same rights. I’d like to have my day in court.”
A petition for a writ of habeas is a civil action against the state — usually the warden of the prison or jail where the prisoner is held — that asks the court to determine whether the prisoner is being held lawfully, according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School. Brotherton will file the petition in Pike County because Erickson is incarcerated there at the Northeast Correctional Center.
The petition is Erickson’s last option to appeal his conviction, Brotherton said. If the petition is rejected by the Pike County Circuit Court, he plans to refile the petition in the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District and, if that fails, the Supreme Court of Missouri.
“This is the last legal remedy that is available to him,” Brotherton said. “The only other thing left is a clemency.”
In the petition, Brotherton will seek relief based on a claim of actual innocence and prosecutorial misconduct.
Actual innocence argues that there is “an absence of facts required for conviction under a criminal statute,” according to the Legal Information Institute. To prove actual innocence, the defense must submit evidence that undermines the court’s conviction.
Brotherton declined to discuss the evidence that he plans to present in the petition, but said he will definitely challenge the methods Columbia police used to interview Erickson in his claim of prosecutorial misconduct. Brotherton said the petition has "very strong claims."
During interviews with police, Erickson often responded to questions with answers that did not correspond with the evidence police found at the scene. But at Ryan Ferguson’s trial, he presented a cohesive narrative of what happened that night. Erickson later said he felt he was being groomed to testify at Ferguson's trial.
Then he recanted his testimony. Ferguson wasn’t involved in the killing, Erickson said in a 2009 video-recorded deposition. Then he recanted again. In 2012, Erickson said he had no memory of the night of the murder at all. At a 2012 hearing, Erickson said he lied first at the trial to protect himself and in 2009 to help Ferguson's appeal.
The final statement, Erickson said, is the truth. His lack of memory continues to frustrate him, he said, but his memory and credibility is beside the point.
“I’d just be happy if people focused on the facts," he said. "I don’t expect people to believe me.”
Meanwhile, the Columbia Police Department's investigation into Heitholt's killing continues, Deputy Chief Jill Schlude said Wednesday. Columbia police deemed the case active a month after Ferguson’s release, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.
There was no physical evidence linking Ferguson and Erickson to the crime scene, only Erickson’s statements and testimony from Jerry Trump, who was working as a janitor at the Tribune the night of the murder. At Ferguson's trial, Trump said he recognized Ferguson and Erickson as the two people he saw in the Tribune parking lot the night of the killing. Trump also recanted his testimony.
Ferguson's conviction was vacated in 2013 after the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District found that the prosecution had witheld key evidence from the defense, an error called a Brady violation. The court found that the prosecution failed to disclose that it had conducted interviews with Trump's wife and that information revealed in the interviews would have affected the credibility of Trump's testimony. Prosecutors are legally obligated to notify the defense of all interviews. Days after the court decision, Ferguson was released from prison after serving almost eight years of his 40-year sentence.
After Ferguson walked free, the Ferguson family and their lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, said they would work for Erickson's release. At a news conference the day of his release, Ferguson said, "That guy's a lot of things, but the first one is innocent."
Erickson said Wednesday that neither the Ferguson family nor Zellner were involved in his appeals process. Zellner briefly represented Erickson between 2010 and 2011, but dropped him as a client to avoid the possibility of a conflict of interest because she was also representing Ferguson at the time. Zellner did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Erickson said Wednesday that it wasn't the Ferguson family's responsibility to help him in his appeal process.
“I don’t think they owe me anything," Erickson said. "I don’t think Ryan owes me.”
The petition for writ of habeas corpus will be Erickson's first attempt to appeal his conviction, his mother, Marianne Erickson, said Wednesday. Erickson didn't try to appeal the conviction previously because he believed he was guilty and should serve the time, she said.
One reason Marianne Erickson believes it took him years to believe he was innocent is that he had limited contact with his family and friends. For the first 16 months of his imprisonment, the mother and son weren't allowed to hug, she said.
Now they're able to talk more frequently, though their contact is still limited.
"It's always one step in front of another," Marianne Erickson said. "It's how you get through."
The online community of people who support Erickson and his family has been encouraging to Marianne Erickson. The Facebook page "Free Charles Erickson" had more than 6,000 likes Wednesday afternoon.
"It amazes me how people who don't know us care about Charlie," Marianne Erickson said.
In the 12 years since his arrest, Erickson has started taking college classes through a program at Louisiana State University and is working toward a bachelor's degree, he said. While in prison, he is also involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a speech club.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed