Brady violations overturn Ryan Ferguson’s conviction

Ryan Ferguson could be released as early as Nov. 20.
Bill Ferguson, Ryan Ferguson’s father, holds up a composite sketch of the man believed to have been present at the crime as he asks for help finding this man to clear his son's name at a press conference Tuesday night at Tiger Hotel. Bill Ferguson was confident that finding this man will bring closure to the victim's family.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, on Tuesday overturned the 2005 conviction of Ryan Ferguson for the murder of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

“We always knew that he would be free eventually,” Ryan Ferguson’s father, Bill Ferguson, said at a press conference Tuesday evening. “It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.”

The court ruled that the state violated federal law by withholding key evidence in the trial, according to the opinion of the court.

State attorneys have 15 days to either appeal Tuesday's ruling or ask the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case.

Crime and punishment

Heitholt was murdered shortly after 2 a.m. Nov. 1, 2001, in the parking lot of the Tribune building.

Two Tribune custodians, Shawna Ornt and Jerry Trump, were the first to discover the crime scene at 2:20 a.m. Both reported seeing two men standing near Heitholt's car, according to court documents.

Jerry Trump told police he could not identify the two men he saw.

For two years, the murder remained unsolved.

After reading articles in December 2003 that reported the murder, Charles Erickson, a friend of Ryan Ferguson’s, began to wonder if he had been involved in the crime. The night of crime, he and Ryan Ferguson were intoxicated and Erickson was unable to remember many of his actions. Erickson reported having “dream-like” memories of being involved in the crime, according to court documents.

Erickson told his apprehensions to his friends, who later contacted the police. Erickson confessed involvement in 2004, and police arrested Ryan Ferguson.

During the jury trial in 2005, no physical evidence could be tied to Ferguson or Erickson.

Trump said he could identify the two men, despite what he had told police in 2001. He made an in-court identification of Ferguson, according to court documents.

Ferguson was convicted of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder and received a 40-year prison sentence. Erickson received a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action.

With the lack of physical evidence, the state's case relied on the two eyewitness accounts from Erickson and Trump. However, both witnesses later recanted their statements.

In 2009, Erickson recanted his testimony and denied that Ferguson participated in the murder and robbery.

In 2012, Trump gave an affidavit saying he lied during the trial and that he could not identify Ferguson at the crime scene as one of the men at the crime scene.

Undisclosed facts

The court ruled that the state committed a Brady violation because it did not disclose an interview with Barbara Trump, Jerry Trump’s wife, which would have called into question the credibility of Jerry Trump's testimony.

Brady violations come from a precedent set by Brady v. Maryland, which requires both sides of a criminal case to share all evidence and information.

In order to prove a Brady violation, Ferguson had to prove three things: the evidence would be favorable to him, that the state either intentionally or unintentionally suppressed the evidence and that he was harmed because of the suppression.

Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner represented Ryan Ferguson and spoke at a press conference Tuesday to respond to the court decision.

“It's really simple to convict someone who is innocent if you have witnesses who are lying,” Zellner said. “It is unbelievably difficult and complex to undo a conviction like that, and … that's why I recommend every one study this (court) opinion. Because it shows the complexity of the law and how difficult this is. Courts don’t like recognizing that mistakes have been made.”

Fight for freedom

For nearly nine years, Bill Ferguson has fought to free his son.

Ryan Ferguson attempted 14 times to overturn his conviction. Ryan Ferguson also asked the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case, but the request was denied.

Ryan Ferguson's case went to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, in September. Ryan Ferguson appealed the ruling of Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green in October 2012 that denied a new trial.

In appeals court Sept. 10, Ryan Ferguson’s defense team got a chance to present oral arguments refuting the murder conviction.

“It was very exciting to get to present our case,” said Bill Ferguson said after oral arguments in September.

At the appeals court, the three judges focused in on the Brady violations and prosecutor Kevin Crane’s inappropriate prosecution at the first trial, Bill Ferguson said.

Next steps

Ryan Ferguson could take legal action against the state for the violations, but Zellner said that her first priority is making sure he is out of prison.

“Until Ryan Ferguson is sitting in the Thanksgiving table, I am not going to talk about that,” Zellner said at the conference. “There are civil actions (we could take), but we just want to get Ryan Ferguson out of the front door of the prison.”

Ryan Ferguson will be freed Nov. 20 if state attorneys don’t appeal Tuesday's ruling or ask the Missouri Supreme Court to review the case within 15 days.

“We are aware that by vacating Ferguson's criminal conviction, we have erased any measure of comfort that Mr. Heitholt's family and friends may have drawn from the belief that a person responsible for his senseless and brutal murder has been brought to justice,” the court said in its opinion. “As our Opinion indicates, however, Ferguson's conviction is not a verdict worthy of either judicial or public confidence."

Mara Somlo and Daniel Henderson contributed to this report.

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