I realize this post is long. If you don't want to read it all, I don't blame you. But please take my word for it that this person has been unjustly convicted of murder based on unbelievably flimsy evidence, and deserves a new trial. As such, please go to Change.org and sign the petition urging a new trial. If you don't want to put your name on something like that without knowing more about it first, then read on.
As I've mentioned before on Serene Musings, M and I love to watch the news show 48 Hours Mystery together every Saturday night at 10 pm. The show always highlights some murder case that is either ongoing or has recently been resolved, gives the background of the case and the parties involved, then reveals the verdict at the end. In reruns (shown currently on TLC), they frequently give new updates to old shows. One of their frequent tricks is to tug you back and forth during the episode, making you initially think a suspect is guilty as sin, then swinging you back the other direction to make you question your initial certainty. It makes for entertaining television.
48 Hours, of course, isn't the only news show that presents murder cases like this. There is also a Dateline series that does something similar and an old series called Cold Case Files that highlighted cold cases that had recently been resolved. I like watching them all, and since TLC reruns both the Dateline and 48 Hours shows, I can watch them frequently.
The point is telling all this is to say that, over the years, I have seen dozens, probably hundreds, of hour-long news reports about various murder cases. Sometimes I agree with the verdict, sometimes I'm torn, and other times I'm pretty sure the suspect is probably innocent. But only once have I not been able to get a particular case out of my mind; only once have I been so certain that a suspect had been victimized by the justice system that I felt the need to do something; only once have I wished I was a prominent celebrity who could use my wealth and influence to help get a wrongfully-convicted person freed. It concerns the case of Ryan Ferguson.
In the early morning hours of November 1, 2001, Kent Heitholt, Sports Editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, was murdered in the parking lot of the newspaper office after leaving work just after 2 a.m. Just before the murder, he had a brief conversation in the parking lot with fellow reporter Michael Boyd, who was in his car getting ready to leave. After this conversation, Boyd drove away, later testifying that the time was about 2:15 to 2:20. He said he saw nothing suspicious.
Shortly after 2:20, a janitor named Shawna Ornt came outside to smoke on the loading dock near the parking lot. She saw two white males crouching behind Heitholt's car and quickly went back inside to get a co-worker, Jerry Trump. The two returned to the loading dock and one of the people behind the car came out and said: "Somebody's hurt, man!" The two suspects then fled in the opposite direction.
During the 911 call that took place several moments later, Jerry Trump told the operator that he could not give a description of the two suspects, beyond stating that they were white males. Later that same day, he told the same thing to police investigators, stating that he had not gotten a good look at their faces. He did mention that one might have been wearing a hat, and that one was taller than the other.
Ornt, however, did get a good look at the face of one of the suspects. Her description was used to create a composite sketch. She described him with blonde hair, muscular, and in his early 20's.
Heitholt was murdered next to his car. The pathologist determined he had been hit over the head eleven times with a blunt object, but there was no skull fracture or significant brain damage. Instead, the cause of death was from strangulation; Heitholt's belt had been removed and had been used to strangle him. Only the broken belt buckle remained at the scene. The remainder of the belt, as well as the blunt object used to hit him over the head, were missing and never recovered. The only things taken from Heitholt were his car keys and his watch.
The murder scene in the newspaper parking lot was rife with physical evidence. Fingerprints were found on the car that belonged to Heitholt. Other fingerprints, however, did not match his or anyone in his family. Additionally, there were two bloody footprints discovered near the car. Neither the fingerprints nor the footprints matched any of Heitholt's co-workers who had come to the scene before police got there. Finally, a strand of bloody hair was found in Heitholt's hand that did not match Heitholt. This hair undoubtedly belonged to one of the murderers.
A K-9 unit was used to trace the bloody footprints. The K-9 unit led police to the nearby campus of the University of Missouri, where the scent was lost.
THE CASE GOES COLD
Despite having two eye witnesses, with one being able to give a firm description of one of the suspects, and a significant amount of physical evidence, police were unable to solve the crime. All their leads proved dead-ends. For two years, the case remained cold. During this time, there was a significant amount of local media coverage of the case, and, subsequently, a lot of pressure to get the case solved.
A SUSPECT STEPS FORWARD
In late 2003, the Columbia Daily Tribune ran a story about the case, coinciding with the 2-year anniversary. A 19-year-old drug-user and local "troubled kid" named Chuck Erickson read the reports and began having dreams of himself murdering Heitholt. He soon began to tell friends about these dreams, suggesting to them that he was starting to think maybe he had committed the murder with another friend. He had not remembered committing the murder initially, but the news reports had started to spark his admittedly drug-hazed memory.
On the night of October 31/November 1, 2001, Erickson believed he had been out drinking with his friend Ryan Ferguson. At the time, both had been 17-year-old high school students, but had used fake I.D.'s to drink at a bar after leaving a Halloween party earlier in the evening. In January of 2004, Erickson contacted Ferguson and told him about the dreams and about his belief that the two of them, together, had committed the crime. Ferguson told him he remembered the night well, and that they most definitely had not had anything to do with the murder.
Erickson continued to tell friends about his suspicions, and one of them finally called in a tip to police. In March of 2004, Erickson was brought in an interviewed by police. He eventually took a plea deal and plead guilty to the crime and is currently serving a 25-year sentence. In his plea deal, he agreed to testify against Ryan Ferguson.
Erickson claimed that he and Ferguson had been at a bar near the newspaper office, drinking, when they ran out of money. Not wanting to go home, Erickson claimed that Ferguson suggested they go rob someone. Erickson thought this was a great idea. He stated that Ferguson retrieved a tire tool from his car and handed it to Erickson, then the pair walked towards the parking lot of the Tribune and noticed Heitholt. Erickson said he hit Heitholt over the head with the tire tool, after which Ferguson strangled him. Erickson testified that he got sick and vomited on the ground. He stated that he believed Ferguson had taken Heitholt's wallet.
Around this time he testified that a "cleaning lady" came out and he called to her that someone was hurt, and then he and Ferguson walked quickly away.
Following this, he stated that the two fled across a nearby street, washed their hands off in a creek, then came across a friend named Dallas Mallory who was in his car stopped at a red light. Erickson stated that he told Mallory what had happened and that someone was hurt. After that, the two went back to the bar and continued drinking until they finally left again and Ryan drove him home.
ANALYSIS OF ERICKSON'S STORY
Already you might have noticed some problems with Erickson's story. Heitholt's wallet was not taken from him - only his keys and watch were missing. Erickson went so far as to tell police that Ferguson had told him, several months after the murder, that he (Ferguson) was in big trouble because his Dad had found "the wallet" and now suspected his son was involved. Heitholt's wallet was not stolen (it was found in his car), so this testimony cannot be true. When questioned, Erickson said nothing about a watch or car keys.
Additionally, there was no vomit found at the crime scene, even though Erickson was certain he had "gotten sick" while Ferguson was busy strangling Heitholt.
There are numerous other inconsistencies as well. To begin with, Erickson stated that Heitholt was lying face-up while Ferguson was strangling him. Witnesses testified that Heitholt was lying face-down when he was found, and the pathologist who examined the body stated he was strangled in a face-down position.
Erickson seemed to know that Heitholt had been bludgeoned and strangled, but these facts had been reported in the media. He told police more than once that he had only hit Heitholt one time, unaware that the investigators had already determined that Heitholt had been hit 11 times. He also stated that it was a tire tool of some kind, though blunt force from such an object would have done far more damage to Heitholt's head than what the autopsy showed.
Additionally, Erickson initially stated that he didn't know what Ferguson had used to choke Heitholt with. He initially demonstrated Ferguson using his hands to choke Heitholt. After being pressed, he said it might have been "a shirt or something." After being told it wasn't a shirt, he said it might have been a bungee cord or a rope. He was incredulous when the interviewer finally told him it was Heitholt's own belt, stating "I don't remember that at all." When asked if the belt rang a bell, he stated: "Not at all."
Erickson stated that the "cleaning lady" was carrying a "cord" or a "vacuum" as was busy doing something when he saw her. In fact, she had simply stepped out to have a smoke and was not holding anything in her hands. Media reports had identified the cleaning lady as an eyewitness. Erickson testified that he told the cleaning lady that someone was hurt, but later admitted he had read this in the newspaper.
Erickson stated that Ferguson searched around in Heitholt's car before they fled. Yet none of Ferguson's fingerprints were found there, despite the fact that Erickson also testified that neither of them was wearing gloves. Recall, also, that Heitholt's wallet was found untouched inside the car, and Erickson had testified that the whole reason for the crime was robbery.
When taken to the crime scene, Erickson was not able to identify the place in the parking lot where the murder had actually occurred. Furthermore, the bloody footprints on the pavement indicated the murderers had fled in a completely different direction from what Erickson stated. Finally, Dallas Mallory, the friend Erickson said he had told about the murder on a street corner that night, denied the story, and testified he had not owned a car or had a driver's license at the time. City records also proved that the intersection where Mallory was stopped that night had flashing yellow lights, so he couldn't have been stopped there at a red light. Two girls who Erickson said were in the car with Mallory have never been identified or stepped forward.
Erickson's time table also did not fit the known facts. He stated that he and Ferguson had left the bar, killed Heitholt, then returned to the bar until it closed (presumably using the money from Heitholt's non-existent wallet). The bar closed that night at 1:30, the bartender testified he had personally left by 2:00, and other patrons confirmed the bar closed at 1:30, which was required by law. The murder occurred around 2:20. Erickson stated that he and Ferguson had to stay at the bar until after 4:00 because a police officer was right across the street. Records show no police officer in the vicinity at that time. No patrons, passers-by, or anyone else ever corroborated Erickson's story that the bar was still in full swing until 4 a.m. One witness stated that she saw Erickson and Ferguson leave the bar between 1:15 and 1:30 and get in Ferguson's car and drive off (this evidence was not presented at trial, because the defense team did not learn about it until after the trial was over). Erickson maintained that they walked to the murder scene and back, and only got in the car after returning to the bar and staying until after 4:00.
The ultimate conclusion to draw here is obvious: even though he confessed to it, Chuck Erickson probably had nothing to do with this crime. He got virtually every fact about the murder wrong, except for those details that had been released to the press. Throughout his police interviews, he routinely stumbled over his details, contradicted himself, and provided information that is provably incorrect. He routinely told police that the whole event was hazy and dream-like in his mind, and that he was possibly just "freaking out" and making the whole thing up. He admitted to having a long history of drug abuse, including heavy use of pills, cocaine, and alcohol. He stated that he frequently drank to the point of blacking out, smoked pot three or four times a day, and experimented with LSD and mushrooms. He also admitted he had no memory of the murder until reading newspaper accounts of the story. He even stated: "I'm making presumptions based on what I read in the newspaper." He admitted telling friends he wasn't sure if what he remembered came from dreams or actual memory.
Investigators gave Erickson false police reports indicating that eye-witnesses could match him with the murder. They told him he could potentially get the death penalty. They also told him that Ferguson was thinking of doing a plea deal and testifying against Erickson. All of these things were false information, used by the police to convince Erickson he needed to plead guilty and testify against Ferguson to save himself from the death penalty.
When he finally testified in Ferguson's trial, his story was coherent and consistent with the facts of the case. Based on his police interviews in 2004, it is clear he had changed his story to fit the facts given to him by the police.
At the time of the crime, Ryan Ferguson was 17 years old. He had no criminal record.
During his questioning, Ferguson stated that he arrived at a Halloween party earlier that evening, right after it had gotten broken up by police. Erickson was coming out, so he got in Ferguson's car and they drove to a local bar, where they used fake I.D.'s to get in. Ferguson bought drinks for himself and Erickson. They stayed until about 1:15, at which time the bar lights came on in preparation for closing and Ferguson drove Erickson home before going home himself. He stated that he made a number of phone calls while sitting on the curb outside his home.
ANALYSIS OF FERGUSON'S STORY
Ferguson has maintained his innocence from the beginning. His story is consistent with eye-witness accounts that say the bar closed at 1:30 and he left with Erickson around 1:15 and got in his car. Cell phone records prove he was on his phone from about 1:40 to 2:10; unfortunately, they do not show where the calls were made from.
Recall that significant physical evidence was found at the crime scene, including fingerprints, shoeprints, and bloody hair, none of which belonged to Heitholt.
There is no long story to tell here: the simple fact is that none of the prints, hair, or blood matched either Erickson or Ferguson. One would think this would virtually exclude either of them from arrest, much less conviction. One would assume wrong, however.
In addition, the murder weapons - the blunt object and the belt - were not found in Ferguson's possession, and neither were the missing keys or the watch. A common tire iron found in Ferguson's car was ruled out as a possible murder weapon because there was no forensic evidence tying it to the scene, and expert witnesses testified that if a tire iron had been used, Heitholt's head injuries would have been significantly more serious.
Finally, recall that eye-witness Shawna Ornt - the "cleaning lady" - had gotten a good look at one of the suspects she saw near the car. She was the only person who got a good look at the suspect, and was the only person whose description was used to make the police composite drawing. She told police definitively that the person she saw was neither Ryan Ferguson nor Chuck Erickson. Furthermore, she had stated that the person she saw was in his early 20's, about six feet tall, and about 200 pounds. Both Ferguson and Erickson were significantly younger, shorter, and leaner than that.
I have already mentioned that Erickson's trial testimony was radically different from the garbled, incoherent, and largely inaccurate accounts he first gave to police. He had clearly been coached and fed information and his story was consistent with the facts of the crime. In his interviews, Erickson demonstrated no knowledge whatsoever of details of the crime that had been withheld from the public. In fact, virtually all of the details he gave, which only the perpetrator could have known, were wrong. Only after interrogators provided this information to him in his interviews did he begin to incorporate them into his story. This can be illustrated by reading the transcripts or watching the interrogation videos, then comparing them to his trial testimony. By way of example, he initially told investigators that he and Ferguson fled by a certain route from the scene. Later, investigators took him along the route sniffed out by the K-9 unit, which was different than the route given by Erickson. At trial, Erickson's route testimony matched that of the K-9 unit.
As we have seen, no physical evidence connected Ferguson to the crime. Numerous witnesses contradicted Erickson's timeline and version of events. Shawna Ornt testified at the trial, but because she had already told police that the man she had seen was neither Ferguson nor Erickson, she was not asked by the prosecutor if Ferguson was the man she had seen - meaning the jury never heard her state this definitively.
Ultimately, Ferguson was convicted on two pieces of evidence: the testimonies of Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump. These were the only two witnesses who testified against Ferguson. We've already looked at Erickson's story.
Recall that Jerry Trump was the custodian who, along with Shawna Ornt, saw two men crouching by Heitholt's car on the night of the murder. On his 911 call, which happened just minutes after the fact, and in his police interview which occurred about an hour later, he stated that he called to the men several times before they ran off, but that he did not get a good look at them. The 911 operator tried several times to get him to give a description, but he kept saying he did not really see their faces. All he could say with certainty is that they were white males. He told more or less the same thing to police.
A month after the murder, in December of 2001, Trump was sent to prison for a parole violation connected to an earlier sex-crime conviction. He was released in 2004 about six months after the arrests of Ferguson and Erickson. At trial, he testified that while he was in prison in 2004, his wife sent him a newspaper showing the photographs of the newly arrested Erickson and Ferguson. He stated that when he opened the package containing the newspaper, it was folded in such a way that only the photos were visible, not the headline stating who they were. He stated that, before even realizing they were suspects in the crime, he immediately recognized them as the two men he had seen that night in the parking lot. Trump's wife was interviewed by investigators before the trial, and she said she had no memory of sending him the newspaper - an event that had occurred just a few months earlier. His wife's denial of sending the newspaper was not mentioned in trial, and Ferguson's defense team did not learn about it until later.
During his testimony at the trial, Trump positively identified Ryan Ferguson as one of the men he had seen that night.
The trial ultimately lasted only 5 days. The jury got the case on a Friday afternoon, deliberated for just a few hours, then returned a guilty verdict. Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
You might be asking yourself, as I did, how someone could be convicted of murder under these kinds of circumstances? In the American justice system, a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, and "proof" is defined as "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is the standard we go by in this country to convict people of crimes. There is no question that the jury in this case did not have all the information that I have explained above (I've already noted at least two facts that were not noted at trial), but they still had the majority of the story I have related. How on earth could this jury convict Ryan Ferguson based on this evidence (or lack thereof)? Who in their right mind could consider this evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Ferguson was guilty?
I was outraged and disgusted and flabbergasted after watching the 48 Hours episode that highlighted Ferguson's case. I could not believe he had been lawfully convicted by a jury of his peers. I felt completely hopeless to help, and still feel that way, quite honestly.
In any case, I have followed up on Ferguson's case over the last few years, and there have been a number of interesting developments.
To begin with, Jerry Trump has recanted the testimony he gave at trial and has admitted that he lied on the stand about being able to identify Ryan Ferguson as one of the people he saw the night of the murder.
During the trial, Trump stated that he saw Ferguson's picture on a newspaper sent to him by his wife, and that he saw this picture, and recognized Ferguson's face, before even knowing Ferguson had been arrested for the murder.
He has since stated that, in fact, he never saw that newspaper until prosecutors showed it to him when he met with them in December, 2004, shortly after his release from prison and several months before Ferguson's trial. Recall that his wife had denied ever sending the paper to him. He has stated that his motivation for lying was due to pressure from the prosecutor to identify Ferguson, and his fear of being sent back to prison. He had gone to prison in 2001 for a parole violation that involved failing a polygraph test about his sexual activity (he was a convicted sex offender). He testified that he felt his probation had been wrongly revoked and he feared something similar would happen again. He believed that if he helped the prosecution, they might help him out in the future.
He has reasserted what he had said from the beginning, just moments after the crime: he did not ever get a good look at the faces of the two men behind the car. In addition to this, five different acquaintances of Trump have signed affidavits attesting that, following the Heitholt murder, Trump told them he had not seen the suspects' faces.
Considering that Trump could now face perjury charges as well as parole violations for committing perjury, and considering he was given no immunity or deals by admitting to perjury, it is difficult to imagine that his recantation is false. He clearly never saw the suspects' faces, and he clearly did lie in trial when he identified Ferguson as one of the people he had seen.
In light of this, it may be worth noting that one of the jurors who convicted Ferguson told CBS that Trump's trial testimony was vital to Ferguson's conviction. He told the jury Ferguson is the person he'd seen. As far as they were concerned, that meant Ferguson had to be guilty.
As if that's not shocking enough, Chuck Erickson has also admitted that his testimony against Ferguson was false.
To begin with, he has stated that he has no memory of the murder. He recalls going to the bar with Ferguson and using alcohol and drugs earlier in the night, but does not remember leaving the bar or going home. He stated that when he woke up the next morning, he did not remember murdering anyone and had no blood or other physical signs of violence on his body or clothes.
He has admitted that, following the time of the murder, his drug and alcohol use increased "a lot." He recalls a conversation with Ryan a few days after the murder where they marveled about someone being murdered so close to where they were partying. There was no indication in that conversation that either them had anything to do with it.
After reading about the murder in 2003, he began to get curious about it because he realized that he couldn't actually remember going home from the bar that night, and he knew the bar was in very close proximity to the crime. This, coupled with the fact that he thought the composite sketch looked a little bit like him, made him start fearing he had committed the crime in a drug- and alcohol-fueled blackout. Erickson admitted that, from the newspaper articles, he had gotten all his basic knowledge of the crime - two white male suspects, the blunt object and strangling, one suspect saying something to a cleaning lady, etc.
At a New Year's Eve Party in 2003-2004, Erickson asked Ferguson whether they had committed the crime. He had grown increasingly paranoid that he had somehow been involved. Ferguson first thought he was joking. When he later brought it up again, Ferguson assured him they had not committed the murder.
Erickson wasn't convinced and continued to worry about his involvement and began to grow paranoid that others suspected him. He finally talked to two other friends about it, telling them he thought that he and Ferguson might have been involved. He admitted to being being under the influence of alcohol and cocaine when he talked to his friends about the murder, and testified, in fact, that he only talked about it when he was high and drunk. He testified that he had used alcohol and cocaine the night before his arrest and initial interviews, and had smoked pot that morning. He claimed that he lied to police about Ferguson's involvement because he had become convinced he was guilty and didn't want to take the blame alone.
Recall that the police had given false police reports to Erickson in order to convince him to take a plea deal and testify against Ferguson. Erickson has since stated that these false reports convinced him that Ferguson was not only going to admit involvement, but also try to pin the actual murder on Erickson. Erickson might get the death penalty if he didn't agree to work with the prosecution against Ferguson. One of these false reports included supposed testimony from Dallas Mallory (the person Erickson had claimed they ran into at an intersection just after the murder) stating that Mallory had seen Erickson leaving the crime scene with a weapon in his hand.
Convinced by the false police reports that the police had solid evidence against him, and now convinced utterly that he and Ferguson really had done this crime (after all, Ferguson, so he thought, was ready to plead guilty), and wanting to avoid the death penalty or life in prison, he agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge and testify against Ferguson. He has stated that he does not now, nor has he ever, had any memory of the murder of Kent Heitholt, his own involvement in it, or Ryan Ferguson's involvement. He has stated that the testimony he gave at Ferguson's trial was completely false, based on drug-fueled dreams, confusion, and ultimately police misdirection.
HOW IT STANDS TODAY
Ferguson was convicted on two pieces of evidence: the testimonies of Erickson and Trump. Even the prosecution admitted that no other evidence connected him to the crime. Both have now signed sworn affidavits, and testified under oath in appeal hearings, that they lied in their original testimonies. Neither was given any promise of leniency or immunity for recanting their testimonies. Both could face serious perjury charges stemming from these admissions.
Ferguson should have the conviction overturned, right? Surely.
Recently, a judge denied a motion to throw out the conviction. He essentially ruled that the recantation from Erickson was not credible. He agreed that Trump had clearly lied in the original trial, but he felt that even without Trump's testimony, Erickson's alone was enough to convict Ferguson. As far as the judge was concerned, Erickson was telling the truth originally, and now he is lying, for whatever reason. I won't go into all the particulars, but it simply goes to show you that our legal system is not built to be inherently self-correcting. No matter how unjust a conviction may have been, and no matter how much firm ground a person has to prove he was wrongly convicted, it's simply not that easy.
HOW CAN YOU HELP
First you can visit the website set up to help free Ryan Ferguson. Free Ryan Ferguson.
Second, you can visit Change.org and sign the petition to grant Ferguson a new trial. It needs only a few thousand more signatures.
Finally, you can "like" the Facebook page set up for Ryan, and tell others about it.