Ryan Ferguson was freed from a Missouri prison Tuesday, after an appeals court threw out his conviction in the death of a newspaper editor, and the state attorney general decided not to try him again. Ferguson had been serving a 40-year sentence for the murder of the Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in 2001.
The appeals court ruled that by failing to share important evidence with Ferguson’s attorneys before the trial, the prosecutors violated federal law. Two witnesses also recanted their testimony. Many observers of the case, including members of the public and the media, thought Ferguson was innocent:
Ferguson’s case gained national attention because his high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, claimed to have recalled through dreams years after the fact that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt in a late-night robbery after partying for Halloween. Erickson has since recanted his testimony and remains in prison. . . .
Ferguson was a 17-year-old high school junior at the time of Heitholt’s slaying. He was convicted in 2005 and had been serving a 40-year sentence for murder and robbery.
Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson. At that trial, Erickson said Ferguson had suggested they rob someone to get money for alcohol and that Erickson had hit Heitholt with a metal tire tool before Ferguson strangled Heitholt with the man’s own belt.
But during a 2012 court hearing, Erickson said he had been a heavy drug and alcohol user with hazy memories and had originally been persuaded by police and media accounts into believing he was guilty. Erickson said he no longer was sure of his own involvement and was adamant that Ferguson did not do it.
There was no physical evidence linking Ferguson or Erickson to Heitholt’s death. Former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump was the only witness to testify that he had seen Ferguson and Erickson in the newspaper parking lot on the night of the slaying. Trump also recanted his testimony during the 2012 court hearing. But Ferguson’s freedom ultimately hinged on the way authorities conducted their investigation.
Last week’s appeals court ruling said an investigator in the Boone County prosecutor’s office should have shared details about an interview he had with Trump’s wife that would have raised questions about Trump’s account. The appeals panel cited that as part of a pattern in which prosecutors failed to disclose evidence to Ferguson’s attorneys.
Ferguson greeted television cameras and a cheering crowd at a hotel ballroom after his release, according to media reports. He said that law enforcement had lied to the family of the victim, Heitholt, and manipulated his old friend Erickson into testifying against him.