Ryan W. Ferguson
|Occupation||Host at MTV|
|Known for||Exoneree of wrongful conviction of murder. Winning $11m through a civil suit against his persecutors.|
Ryan W. Ferguson (born October 19, 1984) is an American who spent nearly 10 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of a 2001 murder in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri. At the time of the murder, Ferguson was a 17-year-old high school student.
Kent Heitholt was found beaten and strangled shortly after 2 am on November 1, 2001, in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he worked as a sports editor. Heitholt's murder went unsolved for two years until police received a tip about a man named Charles Erickson. Erickson could not remember the evening of the murder and was concerned that he may have been involved with the murder. Erickson, who spent that evening partying with Ferguson, was interrogated by police. Despite initially seeming to have no memory of the evening of the murders, he eventually confessed and implicated Ferguson as well. Ferguson was convicted in the Fall of 2005 on the basis of Erickson's testimony as well as the testimony of a building employee.
Both witnesses later recanted their testimony, claiming they were coerced to lie by the police, and the prosecuting attorney, Kevin Crane. Kevin Crane is now a circuit court Judge. The 2005 conviction was eventually vacated on November 5, 2013, by the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, and Ferguson was released on the evening of November 12, after he spent almost a decade in prison. He won $11m in a civil suit against Missouri police. The case has been featured on 48 Hours, Dateline, and numerous other newspapers and media outlets.
In the early morning hours of November 1, 2001, 48-year-old Kent Heitholt was murdered in the parking lot of The Columbia Daily Tribune where he worked as a sports editor. He was last seen alive by co-worker Michael Boyd. Boyd told police that they had a work related conversation in the parking lot between 2:12 and 2:20 am.
Minutes later, janitor Shawna Ornt stepped outside for a cigarette break and saw two shadowy figures near Heitholt's car. She ran back inside to get her supervisor, Jerry Trump. Both janitors witnessed two college-age men near Heitholt's car. The janitors reported that one of the men yelled "Someone's hurt out here, man" before both men walked away through a nearby alley. The janitors notified other employees and called 911 at 2:26 am. Heitholt was found severely beaten with a blunt object, and then strangled.
On the same evening, 17-year-old high school junior Ryan Ferguson and another junior Charles Erickson were attending Halloween parties in the area. Ferguson and Erickson later decided to go to meet Ferguson's sister at a bar, By George, because a bouncer who worked there would let them in despite being underage. When the teens were out of money, Ferguson's sister bought them a few additional drinks, then cut them off and Ferguson and Erickson left the bar.
On the night of the murder, Erickson had been under the influence of cocaine, Adderall, and alcohol. The following day, he had no memory of what had transpired that Halloween night. At a later hearing, attorneys asked Erickson if he had noticed anything unusual the morning following the crime such as injuries or blood on his clothing. Erickson confirmed that there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Ornt told police that she got a good look at the young men while Trump reported that he was unable to see them clearly. Police recovered unidentified fingerprints on and inside Heitholt's car as well as an unidentified hair in his hand. Police also recovered footprints in the blood at the crime scene. Ornt gave police a description of the men and a composite sketch was made.
The crime had been unsolved for two years when, in October 2003, local media again covered the murder. Erickson reportedly had several dreams about the crime after seeing an article in a newspaper and, a few days later, mentioned the murder to Ferguson asking him if he thought he may have been involved. "It was crazy that someone had been murdered a couple blocks away from where we had been partying," said Erickson. Ferguson reassured him that he was not involved in the crime. Over time, Erickson says, he began to think more and more about the murders and about the fact that he could not remember that evening.
In November 2003, Erickson read an article in the local newspaper that included a sketch of a possible suspect in the case. Erickson thought the sketch resembled him and became more concerned. He told friends Nick Gilpin and Art Figueroa about his worries and they notified police.
In the recorded interrogation, Erickson seems to have little knowledge of the crime. He told police, "It's just so foggy... I could be sitting here fabricating all of it." At one point he was asked questions about the weapon used to strangle Heitholt. Erickson replied that he thought it was a shirt. When the police officer told him that it was not, he replied, "Maybe a bungee cord?" Eventually the police officer told Erickson that the weapon was Heitholt's own belt. Erickson replied, "I don't remember that at all." After much prodding by investigators, Erickson eventually told police that he and Ferguson robbed Heitholt for drinking money. In March 2004, Erickson and Ferguson were arrested and charged with the murder.
The police offered Erickson a plea deal in exchange for testimony against Ferguson at his trial, which took place in 2005. Along with Erickson, Trump testified that he saw Erickson and Ferguson at the scene. Trump testified that while he was in jail on unrelated charges, his wife sent him a news article about the crime. He claims that as he removed the newspaper from the envelope, he saw photos of Erickson and Ferguson and immediately recognized them as the two men standing over Heitholt on the evening of the murder.
When on the witness stand, Erickson gave a detailed description of Ferguson strangling Heitholt, despite apparently not remembering any details following the murders and during the interrogation. The defense countered that all of the evidence found at the crime scene pointed elsewhere. None of the hair, blood, or fingerprint samples collected at the crime scene were consistent with Ferguson or Erickson, and no traces of the victim's blood were found in the vehicle Ferguson was driving the night of the murder. Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Conviction vacated, charges dismissed
Following the conviction, Ferguson gained a following with wrongful conviction advocacy groups. In 2009, high-profile Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner took over Ferguson's case working pro bono. In 2012, both Erickson and Trump recanted their trial testimony in statements obtained by Zellner and her investigator. In the subsequent habeas corpus hearing, both Erickson and Trump admitted that they lied at Ferguson's trial.
Erickson claimed that prosecutor Kevin Crane pressured him into implicating Ferguson. Erickson testified in the habeas hearing that he does not remember the evening of the murder because of heavy drug and alcohol use and that he blacked out.
Trump recanted the story about his wife sending him the newspaper article. Trump claimed that Crane pressured him into testifying against Ferguson, and said that the first time he saw the newspaper photos was in 2004 at the prosecutor’s office, after he was released from prison. "On more than one occasion, he said 'I've got the right two guys' — almost like a cheerleader," Trump said, alleging Crane also showed him a Tribune newspaper with Ferguson's photo and said it would be "helpful" for him to identify Ferguson as having been at the crime scene.
Boyd, the last person to see Heitholt alive in the parking lot, was also called as a witness. Under questioning, Zellner elicited a timeline from Boyd that placed him with Heitholt at the time of the murder. The court cited these critical admissions in its opinion. Boyd's five conflicting stories were known before the hearing, but no one had ever called him as a witness in a court proceeding where he testified under oath.
Zellner filed an original writ of habeas corpus with the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, citing a number of flaws in the criminal trial. Notable among these were proof that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense team – Brady violations. Through the questioning of prosecution investigators by Zellner's law partner, Douglas Johnson, at the habeas corpus hearing, it was uncovered that during an interview with Trump's wife, she told investigators that she did not remember sending him any newspapers. This interview was not disclosed to the defense team. The Court of Appeals described "a pattern of non-disclosures" by the police and prosecutors that infected Ferguson's conviction.
The other janitor, Shawna Ornt, who witnessed the two men fleeing the parking lot eventually testified under oath that she had told the prosecutor, Kevin Crane, that the man she saw the night of the murder was not Ferguson. She claims Crane repeatedly tried to get her to implicate him and that he became threatening during his last conversation with her. Despite being the sole witness who reported that she could identify the men at the scene, Shawna Ornt was never asked in court if she could identify Ferguson. Zellner alleged that the prosecution did not ask her to identify Ferguson because they knew her answer would hurt their case.
Other evidence that was withheld from the defense trial team was related to the time frame of the murder and Ferguson and Erickson's movements during the evening. Erickson testified at Ferguson's trial that: following the murder, he and Ferguson went back to the bar around 2:45 am and were let into the bar by the same bouncer who had let them in the first time. He claimed on the stand that they left between 4 and 4:30 am.
Kim Bennett, another bar patron who knew Ferguson and Erickson, testified that she saw Ferguson and Erickson leave the bar between 1:15 a.m. and 1:30 am. She was never called to testify at the trial and her statement was not disclosed to Ferguson's defense team. Mike Schook, the bouncer at the bar on the night of the murder, testified the bar closed at 1:30 am that evening, disproving Erickson's claims that they returned to the bar following the murders.
Ferguson's conviction was vacated in November 2013 on the basis that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense team. Following the reversal, the Attorney General of Missouri announced he does not plan to refile charges against Ferguson. The case remains unsolved, and in 2013 the police said they are considering reopening the case.
Civil rights suit
On March 11, 2014, Ferguson filed a civil suit against 11 individuals as well as Boone County, Missouri and the city of Columbia in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. The suit alleges suppression of exculpatory evidence, fabrication of evidence, reckless or intentional failure to investigate, malicious prosecution, conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights, false arrest, and defamation. The defendants include several police officers as well as prosecutor Kevin Crane. Ferguson won the suit and was awarded $11 million—$1 million for each year he spent in prison and $1 million for legal expenses.
Ferguson's case has been cited by the National Registry of Exonerations as an exoneration. The charges against him were dismissed because, as the Western District Appellate Court pointed out in its decision, there was no evidence left that would support a conviction.
The Attorney General of Missouri dismissed the charges because Ferguson presented overwhelming evidence of his innocence in his habeas petition to that court. A mere Brady violation would not prevent a re-trial. The civil suit alleges that following Ferguson's release, former prosecutor Crane and former police chief Boehm harmed Ferguson by continuing to make statements about his guilt.
Charles Erickson remains imprisoned for the crime. He is serving a 25-year sentence in exchange for testifying against Ferguson. Despite his involvement in implicating Ferguson, Ryan has vowed to help Erickson with his release from prison as well. "There are more innocent people in prison, including Erickson... I know that he was used and manipulated and I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He needs help, he needs support, he doesn't belong in prison," Ferguson said. The Ferguson family has offered a $10,000 reward for any tips in solving the case.
Erickson's attorneys filed an appeal in December 2018, which the court denied because he had already confessed to the crime. In June 2020, they filed for a rehearing.
In September 2013, the first book about the Ryan Ferguson case was released: Free Ryan Ferguson: 101 Reasons Why Ryan Ferguson Should Be Released, by Brian D'Ambrosio. The book details allegations of police misconduct and intimidation by Prosecutor Crane. There are also accounts of bogus police reports and alleged witnesses claiming that affidavits against Ferguson were signed in their names. D'Ambrosio proposes alternate theories and examines the allegations against Michael Boyd, the final person to speak with the victim. The case has been featured on 48 Hours, Dateline, and numerous other newspapers and media outlets.
A documentary titled dream/killer detailing the case and Bill Ferguson's journey to free his son debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. It aired in August 2016 as a two-hour special on Investigation Discovery network.
Soon after he was arrested, Ferguson began devoting his time to fitness and health. "I know you're innocent, but while you're in there, I can't protect you," his father told him four days after his arrest in 2004. "You have to do everything you can to make yourself stronger, faster, and smarter to survive." He began exercising and lifting weights.
Following his release, Ferguson became a certified personal trainer.
In April 2016, it was announced that Ferguson would be the host of an upcoming MTV series, "Unlocking The Truth." The series is described as a serialized documentary following other possible cases of wrongful conviction.
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