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The Ryan Ferguson Case Highlights The Difficulty Of Correcting A Wrongful Conviction

Ryan Ferguson
Ryan Ferguson

Ryan Ferguson was wrongfully convicted in 2001 of second-degree murder of Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Ferguson is one of roughly 2.3 million people currently housed in America’s prison system. The United States incarcerates more people than any civilized nation on earth. A majority of those convicted are guilty as charged leaving only a small percentage to fall victim to wrongful conviction. Unfortunately, due to our enormous prison population, even a very conservative estimate calculating a wrongful conviction rate of 1percent would mean we currently have over 20,000 innocent people behind bars.

Although it is difficult to determine exact figures, several studies suggest the percentage of error is much higher than 1 percent. A new study highlighted on the Wrongful Convictions Blog suggests up to 10,000 wrongful convictions occur every year in America. Statistics are nearly impossible to calculate across the board because attention is generally only  given to serious crimes. University of Michigan law professor Samuel Gross, a leading researcher in the field, concluded the rate of exoneration for all capital defendants in the recent era is 2.3 percent. Keep in mind that Gross’ study only details successful exonerations, suggesting the actual percentage of wrongful convictions is much higher. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, most victims of wrongful conviction are never exonerated and those that are spend an average of 11years behind bars hoping for freedom.

Ryan Ferguson’s case is one that highlights the difficulties encountered when trying to overturn a wrongful conviction. Ferguson remains behind bars even though there is not one shred of evidence left to keep him there. Ferguson is currently the victim of the Missouri justice system — a system (like many others) that simply refuses to admit they made a mistake. Trials that often last only a couple of days can send people to prison for a majority of their lives. Unfortunately the appeals process is not nearly as swift, leaving those wrongfully convicted to languish behind bars, fighting for their freedom in an appeals system designed to make it incredibly difficult to correct a miscarriage of justice.

Ferguson was convicted based solely on the testimony of two people, Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump. Both Erickson and Trump have since testified under oath that they were lying. With both key witnesses now discredited, there is zero evidence against Ryan Ferguson. No motive, no witnesses, no physical evidence, absolutely nothing tying him to the crime.

Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson were Rock Bridge High School juniors who snuck into a nightclub on Halloween night 2001. After partying until about 1:15 AM, Ferguson said he drove Erickson home, then went home himself. He has never wavered from his account. The same cannot be said about Erickson.

Chuck Erickson
Chuck Erickson

Erickson was a troubled young man who suffered frequent blackouts due to excessive drug and alcohol use. It is no surprise that he had difficulty recalling events of that night. Years would go by before Erickson began to piece together his thoughts, telling friends that he had dreams about Heitholt’s murder. He said he initially repressed his memory of the killing but began to recall details two years later after reading news reports of the crime. He claimed details emerged in his dreams influencing him to research the case. He thought he resembled the sketch released by police and he began to believe the encounter was somehow a botched robbery hatched when he and Ferguson ran out of money and wanted to keep drinking that night.

A Crime Stoppers tip, resulting from Erickson telling friends about his dreams, led police to bring Erickson in for questioning. During Erickson’s taped interrogation, the detective can be heard providing unknown details about the crime to Erickson to help mold his thoughts. Erickson is asked what weapon was used in the murder and he has absolutely no idea. The detective then tells him that Heitholt was strangled using his own belt. The seasoned detective eventually convinces Erickson that he committed the crime and lies to Erickson stating that Ferguson is in another room about to turn on him. He is told that he better admit to his own involvement if he wants to save himself. The high pressure interrogation would eventually lead Erickson to implicate Ferguson in the murder and offer a full confession of his own.

By the time Erickson took the stand he had the strangulation story down pat. He even motioned to the jury showing exactly how Ferguson strangled Heitholt with the belt. A weapon Erickson was completely unaware of before being fed the information during his interrogation.

The prosecution’s second witness, Jerry Trump, worked at the Tribune as a janitor. Trump identified Ferguson as one of two young men he saw behind Heitholt’s parked car on the night of the murder. Trump’s testimony provided a positive identification placing Ferguson at the scene of the crime.

Both Erickson and Trump would later recant their testimony in written affidavits stating they were coerced into modifying their statements in favor of the prosecution. Erickson blamed his interrogators for not delving into inconsistencies in his own story, and Trump said former Prosecutor Kevin Crane (Crane is now a judge) had told him before the trial that it would be “helpful to him” if he could identify Ryan Ferguson as one of the men in the parking lot. Trump had previous encounters with the law and did not want any trouble. This made him an easy target for Crane.

Ferguson’s defense filed a habeas petition in 2011, based on the new evidence acquired from Erickson and Trump, leading to a hearing in April 2012. Both would be called to testify at the hearing before Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green.

Erickson testified that he gave false testimony implicating Ferguson in return for a reduced prison sentence. He told the court that he blacked out on the night of the murder as a result of ingesting alcohol, cocaine, and Adderall. He stated that his only recollection of that night was that he wanted to go home but he had no idea how he got home.

Trump was visibly shaken on the stand, knowing he faced perjury charges for admitting that he had lied under oath. He spoke clearly when he told the court that Crane influenced his decision to fabricate his testimony. Trump was asked if he was offered or expected anything in return for his testimony at the hearing. Trump broke down as he told the court he was hopeful that Ryan Ferguson and his family would be able to forgive him.

Judge Crane also provided testimony at the hearing, emphatically telling the court  that Trump was lying. Crane denied influencing Trump’s testimony and informed the court that Trump offered his statements voluntarily.

It was no surprise that Judge Green sided with Judge Crane, ruling that Trump’s testimony regarding Crane was a lie. Green did rule that Trump’s recantation was partially credible. Green cherry picked the details he needed, accepting Trump’s testimony that he saw two white males on the night of the murder while at the same time concluding that Trump lied about being able to positively identify Ryan Ferguson.

Green’s ruling rightfully discredited Trump’s positive identification of Ferguson but left the door open for Green to use Trump’s testimony to boost up Erickson because he deemed Trump’s identification of “two white males” credible.

Green ruled that Erickson’s recantation was not credible, choosing to believe Erickson’s testimony at trial. The truth is Erickson’s story has changed repeatedly over the years as a result confusion related to escalated drug use. Nothing Erickson says should be viewed as credible. How can you listen to a drug abusing witness tell multiple stories and simply pick the one that suits your needs? That is exactly what has happened in this case. Green secured Ferguson’s conviction based solely on the original testimony of Chuck Erickson.

Green’s acceptance of Trump’s limited testimony regarding only the two white males simply because it correlated with Erickson’s original testimony highlights his true intentions. Green’s carefully crafted decision protected the reputation of a fellow judge while at the same time denying that a wrongful conviction had occurred. The truth was not important. Sadly it seems all that mattered were the reputations of those involved in securing Ferguson’s wrongful conviction.

Judge Green’s decision is not the end of the road for Ferguson. On January 30th, 2013, Ferguson’s defense filed a petition with the Western District Appellate Court in Kansas City. A hearing is scheduled for September of this year. Ferguson knows he is innocent and will never give up his fight for freedom. Ferguson is not alone in his fight. He has a fantastic defense team led by attorney Kathleen Zellner and his case has gained worldwide support that continues to grow daily. Ferguson’s Change.org petition currently has over 100,000 signatures and his Facebook page has over 48,000 likes. Ferguson’s story has been featured numerous times on NBC Dateline, CBS 48 Hours and in countless news articles.

Please visit www.freeryanferguson.com to learn more about this case.

Ryan Ferguson’s case is also an Injustice Anywhere featured case. Please visit www.injustice-anywhere.org to learn more about this all volunteer organization.