A government can commit few injustices worse than wrongful imprisonment. To render void a person’s liberty, place them in a cell (or execution chamber) and keep them from their rightful autonomy under false pretenses or evidence, trapped in a dense, deaf bureaucracy, should never be allowed to happen outside of Hollywood psychological thrillers.
And yet, it happens — not just in oppressive states such as North Korea, but even here in the U.S. It should be the noble goal of each and every judicial official (and those who keep our courts in check) to ensure that no person is ever wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, regardless of the resources such thoroughness may cost.
With this goal as the standard for our courts, we heavily disagree with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which denied Ryan Ferguson another day in court last week in spite of alarming evidence that our system may have wrongly imprisoned him.
This editorial board has no intention of declaring Ferguson innocent or guilty in the November 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. As American citizens, we trust the integrity of our court system enough to defer to their verdicts, so long as we feel a fair trial has been conducted. However, the amount of doubt that has been cast in recent years on the legitimacy of the evidence and testimony used in Ferguson’s Dec. 5, 2005 conviction makes us question whether this trial was truly fair.
In addition to the lack of physical evidence found at the crime scene, there is now a lack of witnesses standing by the testimony they gave in court. Charles Erickson, who confessed to the murder and robbery in 2004 (and placed Ferguson as his accomplice), taped a sworn statement in 2009 saying he committed the crime alone and was not of sound mind during his confession. Erickson repeated this sentiment last year, and was recently featured in a CBS News “48 Hours” investigation where he, again, swore Ferguson was not involved. In October 2010, former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump admitted to lying during Ferguson’s trial as well.
Attorney Kathleen Zellner, who took up Ferguson’s case pro bono several years ago, appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District on Jan. 30, arguing that the changes in Erickson and Trump’s testimonies, as well as the opinion of a forensic investigator Zellner hired, prove Ferguson’s innocence and that he deserves a new trial. Last week, the state Attorney General’s Office opposed the appeal in a 61-page letter to the court, accusing Ferguson’s team of shopping around for a more sympathetic judge and stating that reopening the trial would be a waste of time and resources.
We vehemently disagree. The court system is not in place to save money — it is in place to preserve justice in our country. This kind of case, where there is so much uncertainty and such a potential injustice at stake, is especially deserving of taxpayer money and judicial resources. (It might be true, even, that the cost of a retrial could be less than the cost of continuing to imprison Ferguson for the remainder of his 40-year sentence.)
Additionally, Attorney General Chris Koster’s claim that Ferguson’s team is just trying to find a “kinder” judge is ridiculous — does he and his office not trust in the judgment of each and every one of Missouri’s best judges?
We would rather be sure Ferguson is guilty than let his life dwindle away in a fog of helplessness and anger, as the past seven years have for him. We would rather the government spend more time and money than risk wrongly imprisoning this man for forty years.
Before you imprison a person and take decades of their life away from them, you must be sure it is justified. Koster’s denial of habeas corpus for Ferguson concerns us that maybe this concept takes lower priority in Koster’s values system than saving the state of Missouri some money and keeping its pride.
We hope the court of appeals places this man’s life and liberty ahead of their own pride. Whether or not Ferguson is innocent, we think there is just cause to reopen his case and give him another day in court. After all, our judicial system must ensure justice for all. One man, Kent Heitholt, is wrongly dead from the events in the early morning of Nov. 1, 2001. We hope his life will be the last one claimed by this senseless tragedy.
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