Ryan Ferguson, a 29-year-old Missouri man, was freed from prison last month after having spent nearly a decade in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He had originally been sentenced to serve 40 years. A number of witnesses who originally testified against Ferguson have since withdrawn their testimonies, and a lengthy campaign to free Ferguson now leaves police back at square one looking for new leads in a murder case that is now unresolved. Police Chief Ken Burton said, “The Department is reviewing the options internally as to how or whether to proceed with additional investigation and/or a review of the case.”
Ferguson was arrested in 2001 for the murder of Kent Heitholt, the sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Heitholt had been shot in his car at a gas station in the early hours of the morning.
Evidence has emerged from the campaign that prosecutors in the Ferguson case firstly pressured witnesses into giving evidence and later withheld evidence from defense attorneys. Ferguson said in a press conference after his release, “As you can see, really, to get arrested and charged for a crime you didn’t commit, it is incredibly easy and you can lose your life very fast, but to get out [of prison] it takes an army.” With the appeals court having overturned Ferguson’s original conviction, the state has now confirmed that it has no intention to retry him or pursue a further conviction, suggesting that it now accepts Ferguson’s innocence.
One of the key witnesses had been Charles Erickson who had been drinking in a bar with Ferguson on the night of the murder. He claimed later to have had dreams with visions of being involved in the murder with Ferguson and gave evidence against him. Ferguson has consistently stated that he simply gave Erickson a lift home at the end of the night while Erickson’s version of events changed a number of times. Erickson has since admitted that he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol on the night and that he lied under oath.
Two other people were central to the prosecution. Janitor Shawna Ornt and her colleague Jerry Trump were near Hietholt’s car on the night of the murder. Ornt described a figure she saw by the car as around 6’0″ tall, weighing around 200 pounds and with blonde hair. Ferguson was 5’8” and weighed 160 pounds while Erickson was 5’6” and was weighing around 150 pounds at the time. Ornt was never asked in court to identify Ferguson , something highlighted in the appeal as a Brady Violation as the prosecutor neglected to bring her to the stand as she would have contradicted the case he was attempting to present. Trump on the other hand initially stated that he was unable to identify any of the people he saw in the car-park yet later identified Ferguson in court. He has now asked Ferguson forgiveness, stating that he was pressured into changing his story.
Ferguson Not Bitter
Ferguson appears to be remarkably sanguine about what has happened to him. He has shown no bitterness towards Erickson or other witnesses who gave false evidence against him and seems keen to get on with his life. He has focussed on thanking family and supporters who have campaigned for his freedom throughout. Thousands of people signed a petition for his release on Change.org and Ferguson made mention of this in his press conference. He did suggest that there were times when he succumbed to depression at the prospect of such a long sentence and that he lost faith in the justice system, yet he used some of his time inside to educate himself. Ferguson now faces the task of getting his life get back on track. He has no college education and, as the campaign website states, he has never used a smartphone or posted a Facebook update. Supporters have set up a fund to give him a kickstart back into society.
The police and prosecutors meanwhile face questions about how the case came to trial in the first place. There was no physical or DNA evidence linking Ferguson to the crime and the key witnesses have been discredited. There is an argument that Ferguson’s release is evidence that the justice system works in the end but this will be of little consolation to a young man who lost ten years of his life for a crime committed by somebody else.