A state appeals court panel on Tuesday overturned the murder conviction of a Missouri man who has maintained his innocence while serving a 40-year sentence for the 2001 slaying and robbery of a newspaper sports editor.
The appeals court ruled that the prosecutor’s office withheld evidence from defense attorneys for Ryan Ferguson that could have aided him during his trial for the strangling and beating death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
“Under the facts and circumstances of this case, we conclude that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial. His verdict is not worthy of confidence,” Western District appeals court Judge Cynthia Martin wrote in the 3-0 decision.
Ferguson’s case has been the subject of numerous national TV news shows, in part, because his 2005 conviction came after his high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, testified that he had recalled from dreams several years later that the two of them had been involved in Heitholt’s slaying after a late night of Halloween partying.
Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson.
But during an April 2012 court hearing, Erickson recanted his incrimination of Ferguson and said his memory of that night was hazy because he had been using drugs and alcohol. During that hearing, former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump also said he had testified falsely during Ferguson’s trial when he identified Ferguson and Erickson as the two men he saw in the newspaper’s parking lot where Heitholt was killed in the early morning of Nov. 1, 2001.
Cole County Judge Dan Green declined to grant Ferguson a new trial last year. Ferguson then took his case to the appeals court, which heard arguments this September. The appeals panel said Ferguson should be released if prosecutors have not filed notice of a retrial within 15 days after the court issues its formal mandate, which could take several weeks.
Ferguson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, said she filed a motion Tuesday seeking his release on bond while prosecutors decide whether to re-try him. She visited Ferguson in a Jefferson City prison and later read a handwritten statement from him thanking supporters during a Columbia news conference with Ferguson’s parents and girlfriend.
“We’ve won a major battle, however the war continues,” Ferguson’s statement said. “I need your help now more than ever. Look forward to sitting at the Thanksgiving table with my family if justice permits.”
His parents, Bill and Leslie Ferguson, expressed relief by the court ruling, vowed to try to also exonerate Erickson and renewed a public plea for tips that could help lead to a new suspect.
“We are looking forward to that day when he can walk out of there and truly be free,” said Leslie Ferguson, a retired school teacher.
The offices of Attorney General Chris Koster and Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight issued separate statements Tuesday saying they needed to consult with each other before commenting or deciding how to proceed. The attorney general’s office represents the state in criminal appeals while the county prosecutor would be responsible for leading a new trial.
The appeals court ruling focused on a phone conversation that an investigator in the Boone County prosecutor’s office had with Trump’s wife, Barbara Trump.
Trump originally testified that, while he was in prison for an unrelated reason, his wife sent him a Tribune newspaper in March or April of 2004 that had pictures of Ferguson and Erickson — and that he recognized them as the people he saw in the newspapers’ parking lot the night of the slaying.
The appeals court said an investigator interviewed Barbara Trump, who said she did not recall sending her husband a newspaper. The court said the investigator never wrote a report about the interview, so the information never was shared with Ferguson’s defense attorneys but should have been. Barbara Trump’s statement was important, because it raised questions about why her husband claimed during a December 2004 meeting with prosecutors that he now could identify Ferguson and Erickson, the court said.
The appeals court cited Barbara Trump’s interview as part of a pattern in which prosecutors failed to disclose evidence to Ferguson’s defense attorneys, including the fact that Jerry Trump had said he could identify Ferguson.
Zellner referred to Barbara Trump’s undisclosed interview as “the thread that unraveled the case” but described the court’s 54-page ruling as “pretty broad sweeping.”