Ryan Ferguson, a Missouri resident, was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 2001 Halloween night murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor, Kent Heitholt.
Although the DNA evidence, hair strands and shoe footprints did not match Ferguson, he was still convicted due to the testimony of two witnesses. Two years after the murder, Ferguson’s friend, Charles Erickson confessed to having dreams about killing suggesting that Ferguson and himself had committed the murder of Heitholt. His details were very vague, however they were enough for the police to lead Erickson’s revelations in the direction of a confession.
Erickson agreed to a plea bargain and implicated Ferguson. Erickson faced a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder and armed criminal action; Ferguson was given a 40-year sentence for first-degree robbery and second-degree murder. Ferguson maintained his innocence throughout the trial.
The trial hits home for Mass Communications faculty member Sharon Santus, who once taught at the Missouri School of Journalism as well as worked at the Columbia Tribune starting just one year after Heitholt’s murder.
“I went to the trail for several days and I remember thinking that the two young men arrested in the case were not guilty,” said Santus. “I had read the police interrogation of both Chuck Erickson and Ryan Ferguson, and I was convinced that police and the D.A. had gotten Chuck to confess something he hadn’t done.”
Santus had the pleasure to get to know Ryan Ferguson’s parents, Bill and Leslie. She described them as warm wonderful people. Santus would meet with Bill regularly at the local Starbucks. It was then she began to teach her students about the Ferguson case.
“I walked the murder scene with Bill and my journalism students had the opportunity to interview him. I also had the Boone County District Attorney speak to my classes because I wanted to be as unbiased as possible,” said Santus.
Santus began teaching at Bloomsburg University in 2007 where she brought the Missouri case to her Newswriting classes in the Mass Communications department.
“I teach this case to my Newswriting classes, because it’s important for them to understand that good journalists must have a heightened sense of justice and injustice,” explained Santus.
She stressed that even after regular procedures occur through a criminal trial, sometimes families are not convinced justice has been served. Often then, the only people who will listen to them are journalists.
“I remember learning about the Ferguson trial, along with other similar cases, in my Newswriting class with Santus last year,” said Kaitlyn Andrey, a Journalism track major. “It helped to put my future career into perspective for me, that I may be the only voice for someone’s problem or that I have the ability to create the news if I can find the hard hitting story.”
Santus assigned her students Ferguson’s case along with other similar cases for students to analyze and write their own version of the news piece. This supplied Mass Communications students with resources to practice their writing and reporting.
“It also helped me learn how to understand different people’s opinions and views about an issue and how I can properly portray them in an article,” said Andrey.
Santus has continued to teach the Ferguson case up to this current semester not only because of her personal connection but also because each article regarding the case shows journalistic integrity and a journalists sense of justice on the topic.
Due to the continuous efforts of Ryan Ferguson, his family, and journalists around the country and not only the people of Missouri but of America, Ferguson’s conviction was overturned on Nov. 5, after spending nearly 9 years behind bars for a crime he had no connection to.
Ferguson’s chance at freedom was furthered when Erickson and the eyewitness of the crime took to the stand one year ago to restate what they saw the night of Oct. 31, 2001. Erickson confessed to lying on the stands regarding Ferguson’s involvement. The eyewitness also admitted to being coerced by the prosecution team into choosing Ferguson as the murderer. He asked for Ferguson’s forgiveness.
The media has played ahuge role in gaining publicity for Ferguson. NBC Dateline, 48 Hours and numerous TV reports, online news sources and newspapers have covered this case. The exposure these stories have created has helped Ferguson’s success in finding justice. It also shows the weight journalists can have on public issues.
The Ryan Ferguson online petition, hosted by Change.org, had over 260,000 signatures for Ferguson’s retrial or freedom. These journalist effects had gained the attention of the Missouri Attorney General and Governor.
Check out the video below on Ryan Ferguson created by BU student Nikki Farr for her Newswriting course.