An Update on Ryan Ferguson
by Tracy L. Barnes
The Law Office of Tracy L. Barnes, LLC, Kansas City
At the point that Ryan Ferguson’s attorneys submitted their final writ of habeas corpus to the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District in January 2013, it was the 14th attempt by his legal team to get his 2005 sentence overturned. Convicted at age 19 of the 2001 murder of beloved Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt, Ferguson, today nearly 30-years-old, received a decision on November 5, 2013, from the Court vacating his conviction.
In its decision, the Western District Court of Appeals stated that due to Brady violations found to withhold from Ferguson the existence of an interview with a key witness’s wife (which would have been favorable to Ferguson and impeached the witness’s testimony at trial), the undisclosed evidence amounted to a “verdict not worthy of confidence.”
Due to the lack of physical evidence to tie Ferguson to the crime scene, and the fact that excluding the witness’s testimony subject to the Brady violation left the prosecution with only the testimony of an alleged co-conspirator (whose credibility was a serious issue), the court determined that little was left in the way of evidence to convict Ferguson.
And what was left was all based on a dream.
Can a person be convicted on the basis of a dream? Surely not. This is the substance of the Salem witch trials, not the justice system of the 21st century. And yet, at the base of the Ferguson trial was the idea that Chuck Erickson, a young adult with a history of substance abuse issues, began having dreams he and Ryan Ferguson were associated with the Heitholt murder.
On Halloween night in 2001, in the hours before the Heitholt murder, Erickson and Ferguson had been hanging out at a local Columbia, Missouri, bar called By George. Shortly after seeing the sketch released by police which he believed resembled himself, Erickson began telling friends about dreams he was having in which he and Ferguson (both high school juniors at the time), perpetrated the murder of Heitholt. One friend, upon hearing Erickson discuss the dreams, tipped off police who brought Erickson in for questioning. The interview video appears to show a confused high school student with little-to-no independent knowledge of the crime, interrogated over many hours and spoon fed details of the crime.
Besides witness accounts, the case was circumstantial. There was little physical evidence (some hair, fingerprints and footprints) but no DNA collected matched either Ferguson or Erickson. No real motive was discovered beyond a possible botched robbery attempt. Though previously having told police he could not identify anyone from the murder scene, Jerry Trump, a janitor who found Heitholt shortly after the attack, later identified Erickson and Ferguson at trial as the men he saw leaving the scene. He stated that while in prison on an unrelated matter, his wife had sent him a newspaper with the two boys’ picture that triggered his memory of that night. Erickson also testified at trial, more confident of his dream recollections at that point, and stated he and Ferguson had in fact killed Heitholt together. Ferguson was convicted of the murder in 2005.
In 2011, following Ferguson’s filing of a writ of habeas corpus, Jerry Trump came before the court and recanted his eye witness testimony in a very emotional display and asked for Ferguson’s forgiveness. Most importantly, Erickson also stated before the court that he had fabricated the story and lied under oath during trial. Although both witnesses recanted, the judge for the Circuit Court of Cole County hearing the matter did not overturn the conviction. Ferguson’s legal team pressed on, filing their writ of habeas corpus to the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District, which led to the recent decision vacating Ferguson’s conviction.
To win on a Brady violation claim means that the court found that (1) the evidence at issue was favorable to Ferguson as exculpatory or impeaching evidence; (2) that the evidence was willfully or inadvertently suppressed by the State, and (3) that Ferguson was in fact prejudiced by the violation. In its decision, the Court stated evidence of a police phone interview with Trump’s wife in which she denied having sent the newspaper to her husband in prison. This would have impeached Trump’s testimony at trial, but Ferguson was never made aware of the wife’s statement.
Additionally, the court found that Ferguson was not notified of Trump’s change in his initial story to police that he could not identify anyone fleeing the scene. It wasn’t until Trump’s deposition in 2005 that Ferguson was made aware of the fact that Trump now stated he could identify Ferguson and Erickson. The conflicting versions of events, although not exculpatory the Court noted, were required to be disclosed to Ferguson under Brady.
On the basis of this reversal, Ferguson was released from prison on November 12, 2013. On the same day, Attorney General Chris Koster announced that the State did not intend to retry or pursue any further legal action at that time.