Ryan Ferguson served eight years in a Missouri prison for a crime he says he did not commit. When he finally got out in 2013, he went straight to work to help others like him.
The result is “Unlocking the Truth,” a docuseries premiering Wednesday on MTV.
On MTV? Ferguson says the network’s younger demographic is the perfect audience in a growing market for stories of the wrongly convicted. Just last week, a federal judge in Wisconsin overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey of Wisconsin, now 26, who was featured on the Netflix sensation “Making a Murderer.”
“To me, the youth, these are the people who could be potentially affected by this more than anyone else,” says Ferguson, calling from New York. “They are also the ones who can make the most significant change moving forward.”
“Unlocking the Truth” will examine three felons, including Byron Case of Kansas City, who is serving two life sentences for the murder of an Independence teen.
Ferguson’s partner on the show is Eva Nagao, the director of the Exoneration Project, an advocacy group based in Chicago.
“I think we are hitting a large swath of people who have not been exposed to this story of injustice who are interested, perhaps recently, in mass incarceration or police accountability,” Nagao says. “It’s going to be a hard show to watch because you realize how easily a wrong conviction can occur, but it’s also going to be hopefully — you’re going to see three individuals who have maintained their innocence for a long time and have been fighting for their freedom for a long time
Ferguson, who was a student at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, was sent to prison in 2005 for the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Despite no physical evidence placing him at the scene and a string of shaky eyewitness testimony (the three who testified eventually recanted their stories), Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Eventually, in November 2013, the Missouri Court of Appeals set aside the sentence, declaring: “We conclude that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial. His verdict is not worthy of confidence.”
Soon Ferguson began thinking of ways to help other wrongly convicted felons.
While Ferguson was in prison, filmmaker Andrew Jenks chronicled his story for the 2015 documentary “Dream/Killer.” Upon his release, the two worked together to shine a brighter light on the cracks in the criminal justice system. Ferguson contacted nonprofit advocacy groups such as Investigating Innocence and Nagao’s Exoneration Project to lay the foundation for the new series.
The eight episodes of “Unlocking the Truth” will look at three controversial cases of incarcerated young men fighting for their freedom. Two will be introduced in the first episode:
▪ Michael Politte is serving a life sentence for the murder of his mother, who, when he was 14, was hit with a blunt object and set on fire in their home in the eastern Missouri town of Hopewell.
▪ Kalvin Michael Smith is serving a 29-year sentence for robbery and assault with intent to kill a pregnant woman in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The story of Kansas City’s Byron case will be introduced Sept. 7. Case is serving two life sentences after his ex-girlfriend claimed he murdered an Independence teenager in a Kansas City cemetery in 1997.
“These are the three we chose because we felt like there was something we could contribute, and there was,” Ferguson says. “Also, this happened to me when I was 19. These are all individuals who lost their lives at an early age, and it doesn’t look like a thorough investigation was done. That was a very compelling factor for us.”
The new show comes in the midst of heightened public interest over wrongful convictions.
Dassey, of “Making a Murderer,” is now free after he was convicted for helping his uncle kill a young woman in 2005.
Season 1 of the “Serial” podcast told the story of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 2000 of murdering his girlfriend Hae Min Lee despite maintaining his innocence. The 2014 podcast was a cultural sensation, downloaded over 80 million times. In June, a Baltimore judge granted Syed a new trial.
“When you do this kind of programming it’s great because it’s the kind of programming where, if you do it right, it can impact people’s lives and spark a larger conversation about issues you might care about,” says Adam Kassen, who, along with filmmaker Jenks is executive producer of MTV’s new show.
“This is about our legal system,” Ferguson says. “Your legal system, my legal system, our children’s legal system. And it can affect any of us at any time. We’re talking about real issues that often go unnoticed or not discussed. If you want to talk about those and make a chance and protect yourself, your offspring, your future and our legal system, this is the show to watch.”
Where to watch
The documentary series “Unlocking the Truth,” will air at 10 p.m. Wednesdays, from Aug 17 to Sept. 28 on MTV.
The Midwest Innocence Project, which along with law firm Langdon & Emison represents one of the felons, Michael Politte, will host a watch party from 9 to 11:15 p.m. Wednesday at Tapcade, 1701 McGee St. Admission is free, but register through eventbrite.com.
No MTV? No problem. The first episode will live-stream on MTV’s “Unlocking the Truth” Facebook page. Ryan Ferguson and Eva Nagao will answer viewers’ questions after the broadcast.