Charles Erickson’s attorney is trying again to have him freed from prison, arguing in a petition to the Missouri Supreme Court that his guilty plea in the 2001 murder of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt is constitutionally unacceptable.
Attorney Landon Magnusson of Liberty, who is representing Erickson at no charge, filed the innocence petition Thursday night.
Erickson is 17 years into his 25-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to killing Heitholt. Erickson was a key witness in the conviction of Ryan Ferguson for the same crime, but Ferguson was freed in November 2013 when the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District vacated his convictions on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery. Attorney Kathleen Zellner presented evidence that the prosecution withheld information from the defense during the trial, according to previous Missourian reporting.
“After the Court of Appeals found that police and prosecutors engaged in wrongful and abusive conduct to obtain Ryan’s conviction, it ordered Ryan’s release in 2013,” Magnusson wrote in his petition. “Even though the same police and prosecutors used the same wrongful tactics against Charles, he has continued to languish in prison.”
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey in 2017 ordered the city of Columbia to pay Ferguson $10 million in damages because of civil rights violations by six Columbia police officers. Ferguson had sued for malicious prosecution, wrongful incarceration and other civil rights claims.
Erickson pleaded guilty in 2004 to murdering Heitholt, who was found beaten and strangled to death in a Tribune parking lot early on the morning of Nov. 1, 2001. Erickson had told police that he and Ferguson committed the crime, but he later recanted his testimony, saying he did not remember what happened that night.
Magnusson argues in his petition that Erickson’s confession was coerced by police, who falsified evidence, threatened him with the death penalty and filled in gaps in his memory by feeding him information about the crime during their interrogation of his client.
Magnusson offered several arguments for why the Missouri Supreme should find that Erickson, who is being held at the Boonville Correctional Center, is being wrongfully imprisoned and should be granted a writ of habeas corpus. He argued that new evidence since Erickson’s guilty plea proves he is innocent and that his plea is constitutionally unacceptable because it was neither voluntarily offered nor knowingly made and because police and prosecutors withheld evidence of Erickson’s innocence and fabricated other evidence.
Magnusson notes in the petition and in a lengthy document making arguments to support it that Erickson changed his story several times while being interrogated by police and often made statements about the circumstances surrounding Heitholt’s death that weren’t true.
“The only consistent story that Charles has provided since 2004 is that he does not remember anything that happened on Halloween 2001 after he began drinking at By George,” Magnusson wrote.
Magnusson argued that no jury could reasonably be expected to have convicted Erickson of second-degree murder. He noted that there is no physical evidence from the crime scene, including fingerprints or bloody footprints police discovered, that matched Erickson or Ferguson. Neither was there a witness who could place them at the scene.
Magnusson wrote that police and prosecutors exploited Erickson’s vulnerabilities, including his obsessive-compulsive and substance-abuse disorders, and that they imposed coercive pressure on Erickson to extract a false confession, the guilty plea and consequential testimony against Ferguson.
“They also withheld evidence by never telling Charles that witnesses saw him and Ryan leave the area of the murder almost an hour before it occurred,” Magnusson wrote.
Two previous petitions by Erickson for a writ of habeas corpus have been denied, one by the Pike County Circuit Court in April 2019 and other by the Missouri Court of Appeals in June 2020. Nevertheless, Magnusson said he feels hopeful that the Missouri Supreme Court will grant the writ.
“I think the only reason I felt confident ever taking this on was because there just seemed to be so much that showed Charles’s innocence,” Magnusson said.
It’s unclear how soon the high court might review the case. Magnusson said he would be OK with it taking a long time if that means the court is seriously looking at the case and taking time to read through the petition and the arguments in favor of it.
If the outcome isn’t what Magnusson, Erickson and his family are hoping for, the next step would be to consider refiling with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, which would mean different evidentiary standards.
Erickson told Missourian reporter Elise Schmelzer in a 2016 interview that he feels his due process rights have been violated.
“Like every other citizen, I have the same rights,” Erickson said at the time. “I’d like to have my day in court.”