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Ryan Ferguson Conviction Overturned

FMSF News Alert - November 6, 2013

Ryan Ferguson’s 2005 conviction has been vacated by the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals - which has ordered a new trial or his release.

Ryan was only 17 years old when sports editor Kent Heitholt was bludgeoned then strangled to death outside the Tribune newspaper office in Columbia, Missouri on Halloween night, 2001. The subsequent investigation was followed closely by reporters, as one of their own had been the victim. Despite the unidentified hair found in the victim’s hand and bloody footprints at the crime scene, the case remained open for several years.

In 2004 a troubled young man named Chuck Erickson told police he’d had a dream that he and Ryan had committed the murder. Chuck’s story to the police did not fit the crime scene. Neither the hair nor the bloody footprints matched either of the boys. Indeed, Chuck’s initial recollection did not fit the evidence in many important ways - a fact which changed after hours of leading questions by investigators.

Other than Chuck Erickson’s recovered dream memory, the only evidence against Ryan was the testimony of a janitor named Jerry Trump who saw two men leaving the crime scene and later identified them as Chuck and Ryan - although during Trump’s original interview with police, he indicates that he did not get a clear look at the men.

Chuck Erickson pleaded guilty to the crime for a 25 year sentence. Ryan Ferguson insisted upon his innocence but was found guilty after trial and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.

Over the years, many attempts at appeals have failed. Memory experts Elizabeth Loftus and Richard Leo have both testified on Ryan’s behalf regarding the likelihood of memory distortion in Chuck Erickson’s testimony.

In 2009, Chuck Erickson’s memory changed once again. He now claims that he committed the murder on his own. Many of Ryan’s supporters believe Chuck Erickson to also be innocent of the crime - a victim of his own false memory. The janitor, Jerry Trump, also recanted saying he’d been coerced into his testimony against Ryan. Still, a Cole County Circuit court judge refused Ryan’s appeal for a new trial in 2012.

This week, the Western District Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, due to the prosecution’s failure to inform defense counsel of information provided by witness Jerry Trump’s wife. Prosecutors have 15 days to decide whether or not to try the case again - or release Ryan by November 20th.

Within this story there are many other amazing tales to tell: The tireless efforts of Ryan’s Father, Bill Ferguson; Attorney Kathleen Zellner who took over the appeals process; and the power of the media to make a difference. Coverage of the case by reporters for CBS 48 Hours was pivotal in bringing public attention to the case. The first of these reports entitled Dream Killer aired in February 2006.

You can read the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals Decision at:
Appeals Decision

J. Bean and Pam