After spending nearly seven years behind bars, Ryan Ferguson, serving a 40-year prison sentence for second-degree murder and first-degree robbery, has finally made some headway in proving his innocence. A weeklong evidentiary hearing began on April 16 in Cole County Circuit Court, Jefferson City, Mo.
Years of efforts at a new trial for his 2005 murder conviction of Missouri Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt, all come down to this evidentiary hearing. Reporters, prosecutors, attorneys and the public all gathered to hear the two men who were responsible for putting Ferguson in jail, recant their testimonies.
Chuck Erikson, 25, who is serving a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder in a plea agreement to testify against and ultimately convict Ferguson, now testifies that he blacked out the night of the murder.
He says, “I try not to think about my case…I lied and sold him out for myself. I lied and said things that I didn’t remember.”
Erikson claims that the only reason he came forward was because someone else placed him at the scene and is unsure if he even committed the murder. On the night of Heitholt’s killing, Erikson said to have consumed a mass amount of alcohol, cocaine and Adderall. He claims to have had no blood or scrapes on himself the next morning.
Former Tribune janitor, Jerry Trump, also recanted his testimony, which identified Ferguson as one of the two people he saw in the Tribune parking lot running from the scene. It came to Trump in an article he had received in jail from his wife that Ferguson was the killer. Trump’s wife said to have never sent it. When asked whether his trial testimony was true, Trump says it was “true to the extent that it is what was expected for me to say.” Accusations were made that in a meeting with Former Prosecuting
Attorney Crane, he said it would be “helpful” for Trump to identify Ferguson as the murderer. When called to the witness stand Crane simply says, “I never told any witnesses what to say or what to testify to,” going on to say he would never risk perjuring himself for his career. Crane still believes both parties are guilty.
Throughout the week another question arose by Ferguson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner. Why was Michael Boyd not questioned about the murder? Forensic pathologist Larry Blum thinks that Boyd may be more than just a witness. He could be a potential suspect.
Blum testified that Heitholt may have not been beaten with a tire tool and that robbery is not usually associated with slaying by blunt trauma and strangulation. He goes on to say, the way Heitholt was killed, was a “murder due to a deep animosity stemming from a personal relationship between the suspects and the perpetrator.”
Could it be that Boyd had that “deep animosity” towards his former co-worker?
Another key witness came forward during Ferguson’s new trial. Kimberly Bennett, 16 years old at the time of the murder, testifies that she is certain to have seen Erikson and Ferguson leave By George nightclub in Ferguson’s car by 1:30 a.m. on the night of Halloween. “I assumed Ryan’s attorneys had a copy of the police report,” she said, surprised that she was never called to the witness stand back in 2005 during the original trial.
Finally on the morning of April 20, Fergusons evidentiary hearing came to a close. Now, the fate of Ryan Ferguson lies in Judge Daniel Green’s hands. A 2003 Missouri Supreme Court case overturned ruling of death row inmate Joseph Amrine will also be used as precedent in this case. Green said he will rule shortly after attorneys file briefs due June 15 arguing each side’s evidence.
The Only Hope
On July 28th, 2003 Joseph was released from the Cole County Detention Center in Missouri after serving more than 16 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Amrine, who was already at the time serving a 15-year jail sentence for burglary and robbery, was accused by three inmates of the murder of Gary Barber in 1985. With little deliberation and an all-white jury at his trial, Amrine, who is African-American, was convicted of murder.
There was no physical evidence pointing Amrine to the murder. John Noble, the only prison guard present when Barber was stabbed, testified that he saw the victim chasing Terry Russell, one of the inmates to accuse Amrine and yet, he was still convicted without question.
One-by-one, the three inmates later admitted to perjury because of either threats or offers made by authorities in their own cases. With help from the Innocence Project and his lawyer, Sean O’Brien, Amrine always maintained his innocence and was eventually exonerated.
In regards to Ryan Ferguson, Ferguson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, says, “This case is identical to Amrine — and stronger.”