Ryan Ferguson's murder conviction vacated

Nov 5, 2013

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District announced Tuesday it is granting Ryan Ferguson habeas corpus relief, effectively vacating his conviction in the 2001 murder of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt.

According to the court statement (full .pdf here), Ferguson is to be released from prison in 30 days unless the state appeals or expresses its intent to re-try Ferguson. Ferguson is serving a 40-year sentence.

Ferguson's Attorney, Kathleen Zellner, says she also put in a request for bond for Ferguson Tuesday, and the state has 7 days to raise any objections.

Ferguson’s case has attracted national attention since his conviction in 2005. The conviction was based largely on testimony from his alleged accomplice, Charles Erickson and a witness - a janitor at the Tribune, Jerry Trump. There was no physical evidence tying Ferguson or Erickson to the murder scene. Both Erickson and Trump have since recanted their testimony, but a previous attempt to be granted habeas corpus based on those recantations had been unsuccessful. They were also not the basis for this decision.

The three judge panel issued the habeas corpus relief based on testimony from Trump’s wife, Barbara, that was withheld from the trial. The court says Barbara Trump’s testimony was “favorable because it was potentially impeaching,” of Trump’s testimony about how he could identify Erickson and Ferguson.

The court described its reasoning this way:

“Ferguson claims that the State committed a Brady violation because it did not disclose an interview with Barbara Trump where she reluctantly reported that she had no recollection of sending her husband a newspaper while he was in prison 

The court document refers to the landmark Brady v. Maryland, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that suppressing evidence favorable to a defendant who has requested it violated due process. 

Ryan’s father, Bill Ferguson, campaigned for years for Ryan’s release. Tuesday was a day of vindication for him.

“We’re just blown away, we’re just amazed and gratified that the justices were able to see the truth,” Bill Ferguson said. “I always knew, it wasn’t a question of if, it was a question of when, because the case is without merit… but now that it is here, it doesn’t seem real, but now with all the press calling it starting to seem more and more, and when I can actually sit down for a quiet moment and reflect on it and actually see Ryan and give Ryan and hug, then I’ll know it’s real.”

Bill Ferguson thinks the state will have a difficult time re-trying the case.

“Considering that there is no evidence for the state, and the only two witnesses have admitted that they committed perjury and that perjured testimony was aided and abetted by prosecutor (Kevin) Crane. So, who would be their first witness?”

The state would have to express its intention to appeal the decision within 15 days of this ruling under Rule 83 and 84.17. If that does not happen, the state would have another 15 days to either file its intent to retry Ferguson in writing in the Circuit Court of Boone County, or release Ferguson immediately. Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight was not available for comment Tuesday morning and only issued this short statement:

"Mr. Knight is aware of the opinion issued today from the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District regarding the Ryan Ferguson case. Until he has had time to read the opinion and to discuss the matter with the Attorney General’s Office, he is unable to comment."

A spokesperson from the Attorney General's office issued a similar statement Tuesday afternoon:

“The Attorney General’s office will review the court’s decision and consult with the Boone County prosecutor’s office in the coming days regarding appropriate next steps to take in this matter.”

Bill Ferguson says he was able to talk to Ryan Tuesday morning about the court’s decision.

“(Ryan) was just so relieved and so happy, but at the same time he realizes that’s one chapter that’s behind him, but he’s got another chapter, which is the state’s still trying to convict him. We think the state will try to pursue that even though they don’t have evidence, even though they don’t have any credible witnesses,” Bill Ferguson said.

Bill Ferguson wasn’t ready to say whether his family would sue the state or other entities for wrongful incarceration should Ryan be released, that for now the focus was getting his son out of jail.

“We haven’t even got there yet... We’ll discuss our option in the future,” Ferguson said.

But he did say there will also be a new fight ahead: for Charles Erickson, who is also serving 25 years for his murder conviction.

“We’re going to do everything we can do to try to help free (Erickson) because we believe he’s totally innocent,” Bill Ferguson said.