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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Ryan Ferguson Murder Case: A Conviction Based on Perjured Testimony

     During the early morning hours of November 1, 2001, a person or persons attacked sports editor Kent Heitholt as he approached his car in the parking lot next to the Columbia Daily Tribune office in Columbia, Missouri. Around the time of the assault two young white men were seen in the vicinity. The attackers had beaten Mr. Heitholt with their fists then strangled him with his own belt. His watch had been stolen but his wallet was still in his car.

     In the months following the Heitholt murder, detectives with the Columbia Police Department ran down thousands of leads but came up empty handed. As time passed and the case remained unsolved, local criminal justice leaders felt building pressure to solve this brutal murder of a prominent citizen.

     In an act of investigative desperation, the authorities, in November 2003, published a composite police sketch of the two men seen near the newspaper office that night. (Police sketches are not only useless to crime investigators, they make things worse by generating false leads and false hopes of a case solution.)

     In March 2004, an anonymous caller to the crimestopper's hotline in Columbia reported that a 19-year-old local man named Chuck Erickson had been telling people that he may have been involved in the Heitholt murder.

     Chuck Erickson, in March 2004, had just come off a probated sentence related to a drug conviction. When Mr. Heitholt was beaten and strangled to death, Erickson would have been seventeen. Detectives assigned to the case were thrilled to have such a promising lead.

     At police headquarters, detectives put Erickson through an intense and prolonged interrogation that was only partially recorded. Erickson told his questioners that because one of the men depicted in the police sketches looked like him, he started wondering if maybe in a drug and alcohol blackout he had been involved in Mr. Heitholt's violent death. Perhaps he and his friend since childhood, Ryan Ferguson, had committed the murder. They had been drinking that night in a bar not far from the crime scene. Maybe they had robbed the newspaper man in order to keep drinking.

     Had the detectives grilling Erickson not been so desperate to solve the Heitholt case, they might have recognized several indications that Erickson and his friend were not good murder suspects. The robbery motive didn't hold water because Mr. Heitholt had been murdered one hour after the bars had closed that night. Moreover, Erickson had to be told that the victim had been strangled with his own belt, and shown exactly where in the parking lot Heitholt had been attacked.

     When detectives brought Ryan Ferguson in for questioning, he insisted that he had nothing to do with Mr. Heitholt's murder. He maintained that position throughout the interrogation. Not only did Ferguson strongly deny any involvement in the homicide, investigators didn't have a single piece of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene.

     Notwithstanding having nothing but the word of a former drug addict who had no memory of what he had done that night, detectives continued to press their case against both suspects.

     In the months that followed, Chuck Erickson, in return for the promise of a relatively light sentence, agreed to testify against his friend. This meant that Erickson's memory, colored by heavy coaching, would have to significantly improve. And of course it did.

     In October 2005, in Columbia, Missouri, Ryan Ferguson went on trial for the Heitholt murder. When prosecutor Kevin Crane put Chuck Erickson on the stand, he testified that he and the defendant had attacked the victim that night in the newspaper office parking lot. Prosecutor Crane also produced a witness, a janitor named Jerry Trump, who said he had seen Erickson and the defendant that night not far from the murder scene. For some reason Mr. Trump had waited several years before coming forward with his information.

     Two men--a drug addict with a remarkably improved memory, and a witness who came forward at the last minute--comprised the sum total of the prosecution's case. In the name of justice, the trial judge should have directed a not guilty verdict based on the fact the government had not carried its burden of proof. But instead, the case went to the jury and Ryan Ferguson was found guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to forty years in prison.

     In 2010, Missouri's Western District appellate court heard arguments regarding the Ferguson conviction. While the justices questioned the star prosecution witness' credibility, they declined to rule on the case. Instead, the appeals court judges recommended that the case be reviewed before a different lower court judge.

     The lower court hearing on the Ferguson conviction took place in April 2012. At this proceeding Chuck Erickson admitted under oath that he had lied at Ferguson's murder trial to save his own skin. Jerry Trump, the prosecution's miracle witness, took the stand and confessed that he had committed perjury as well.

     The lower court review judge, after hearing from Erickson and Trump, ruled that Erickson's testimony at Ferguson's 2005 murder trial was indeed credible. In other words, he was telling the truth then but lying now. Although the janitor's testimony was not reliable, the judge said it was an inconsequential factor in Ferguson's conviction. (This judge must have been really stupid.)

     On January 13, 2013, the Ferguson legal team appealed the review judge's ruling. In September justices with the Western District Appeals Court considered the revised testimony of Chick Erickston and Jerry Trump. On November 5, 2013, the Missouri appeals court vacated Ryan Ferguson's murder conviction. After spending almost ten years behind bars, Mr. Ferguson was a free man.

     

2 comments:

  1. I would like to say he was beat with a blunt object not their fists

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  2. Wonderfully written article, full of facts! Finally! Thank for for this piece. So sad what Ryan went through. I'm only comforted knowing he is out and back with his loved ones. I follow him and his family and social media and I applaud his ongoing efforts to right all the wrongs in this case, and the world. But still, someone ELSE needs to pay for this travesty!

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