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Fri November 8, 2013
7 things you might have wrong about the Ryan Ferguson ruling
This week: what's next for Ryan Ferguson and what exactly is in that appeals court ruling?
Update: This article was written the week before Ryan Ferguson's release. The 30-day timeline we outline below is based on state prosecutors taking no action at all, allowing legal deadlines to stretch out and pass. For coverage of Ryan Ferguson's release, read our latest story.
Ryan Ferguson seems to have "won" his appeal but already on twitter and the media, there's a lot of misinformation on what exactly this ruling means. This week on CoMo Explained, we break it down.
Here are some facts:
1. Ryan Ferguson will likely not be home for Thanksgiving, at least not directly because of the appeal court ruling. Ferguson is not set to be released "in 15 days" as most media outlets have suggested. Depending on how things shake out, Ferguson may sit in jail a full 30 days from this week's decision, meaning he could be let out in early December.
2. A footnote in the conclusion of the court ruling gives the state the option of asking the Court of Appeals to reconsider its decision (why would they, they just made the decision?), or asking for the case to be transferred to the State Supreme Court. The state has a 15 day window to make those requests. Only after that window closes, does the "15 day countdown" to release begin. It's in that 15 day period that the state would have to declare its intention to re-try Ferguson in a brand new case. This is why Ferguson will sit in jail for 30 days unless the state makes some action, according to the ruling. But, if the state pursues either of these options, it will likely be much longer before Ferguson is released. Similar requests to the Court of Appeals or the State Supreme Court typically take weeks or months to get a response (although that could be expedited given the circumstances). And of course, if the state pursues a new case, the timeline on that is much longer.
3. The state could let Ryan Ferguson out right now if it wanted to by waiving its right to the options above. Ryan Ferguson's attorney also filed for bond and the state has until November 12th to file a response to the request. Then, the Western District Court of Appeals will decide whether Ferguson can be out at that time. It is legal for him to be out while the post-opinion motions are still pending, but it's not something he's entitled to.
4. Ferguson's conviction is "vacated" not "overturned" or "reversed." The Western District Court of Appeals rendered the lower, Boone County District Court's opinion to be null and void. Importantly, the state has the option of retrying the case. Ferguson has not been declared "innocent," he has the same status as a pretrial detainee that he had in 2005 before his case began in October of that year.
5. The Appeal Court's ruling hinged on a "Brady Violation" from the original 2005 criminal case. That has to do with procedural problem with the discovery of evidence at the time of the original trial. It explicitly is not a result of the multiple recantations of testimony that have helped to make this case famous. In fact, the court made no official ruling on Ferguson's attorney's challenges based on that testimony or other issues it saw with the case. All other challenges were "dismissed without prejudice;" which basically means 'we didn't make a decision on them this time but can in the future if you need us to.' The court only had to find one Brady Violation to justify vacating the conviction.
6. Specifically the Brady Violation here involves the testimony of the wife of one of two witnesses, Jerry Trump. Trump told police right after the murder that he didn't get a good look at the two figures he saw at the scene, but years later claimed that he could ID Ferguson and Chuck Erickson. His story was that while sitting in jail for an unrelated crime, he saw their pictures in a newspaper his wife sent him. His wife, Barbara Trump, reluctantly told prosecutors that she did not, in fact, send him any such newspaper. The court says the lack of this information undermined the defense's ability to do extra preparation and poke holes in Trump's testimony. This information should have been provided to the defense but it never came to light until long after the trial. And that, essentially, is why Brady Violations exist: to ensure fairness in the evidence used in trial. The court does not have to prove that a jury would have made a different decision if it weren't for the Brady Violation. (It is, of course, more complex than that, and if you really want to know more you can also read the 54-page ruling for yourself (.pdf) The appeals court spelled it out really well there.)
7. William Haws is the name you should know that you probably don't. The court of appeals didn't work over former prosecutor (and current judge) Kevin Crane too harshly in its ruling (aside from saying he was the one responsible for his subordinates, and calling one of his rationalizations for his staff's conduct 'absurd'). But they did tear into a former investigator named William Haws - he's the guy that took the blame for most everything the appeals court took issue with.
UPDATE: Assistant Missouri Attorney General Susan Boresi has been appointed as a special prosecutor in the Ryan Ferguson case. It's not yet clear what the state's intentions are for the case. Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight said in a press release it would be a conflict of interest for his office to handle the case.