A Missouri judge on Wednesday refused to grant a new trial for a former Kansas City resident convicted of second-degree murder in the 2001 killing of a newspaper sports editor.
Ryan Ferguson was one of two teenagers accused in the beating and strangulation of Kent Heitholt outside the Columbia Daily Tribune early on the morning of Nov. 1, 2001. Heitholt was strangled with his own belt.
Ferguson based his bid for a new trial partly on recanted testimony from two key witnesses, including co-defendant Chuck Erickson. Ferguson received a 40-year sentence. Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson.
In his ruling, Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green said he did not believe Erickson’s recanted testimony was credible, and doubted a portion of a former Tribune janitor’s recanted testimony.
Since his son’s conviction in 2005, real estate agent Bill Ferguson has devoted much of his energy and money to trying to prove his son’s innocence. He has claimed that the conviction was based on flimsy evidence.
“It’s like a kick in the stomach,” Bill Ferguson told the Columbia Daily Tribune after the judge ruled. “I am shocked and appalled. I am just devastated.”
Heitholt, 48, was bludgeoned and strangled near his car in the newspaper’s parking lot after leaving work about 2 a.m. the morning after Halloween. Though some physical evidence was found at the scene, including bloody footprints, there were no witnesses to the crime. The investigation went nowhere for nearly three years.
When the murder happened, Erickson and Ferguson were high school juniors in Columbia. Though underage, they had gone to a bar on Halloween night, according to trial testimony. Ferguson has said he took Erickson home and then went home himself.
Ferguson later moved to Kansas City to attend community college.
The investigation took a dramatic turn in 2004, when Erickson began talking about the murder to friends. He told police that he’d had dreams and recollections suggesting he might have played a role in the case. He claimed the two left the bar after running out of drinking money, looked for someone to rob and found Heitholt.
Erickson, who became the key witness at Ferguson’s trial, said that he had hit Heitholt and that Ferguson killed the newsman by strangling him. The janitor, Jerry Trump, testified that he saw Erickson and Ferguson in the parking lot.
But no physical evidence linked Erickson or Ferguson to the crime.
Since then, both witnesses have said their earlier testimony was false.
In a hearing last April, Erickson testified that he didn’t recall whether he was involved in the killing because he had been drinking and taking drugs that night. In an earlier affidavit, he said he was a heavy drug user for many years.
The court also heard a videotaped deposition of Trump, who said then-Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane and a Boone County investigator coached him on the identification. Crane, now a circuit judge, testified he did no such thing.
Green released his 40-page ruling just before the 11th anniversary of the killing. In his decision, Green concluded Erickson’s recantation “to be not credible and false.”
As for Trump, the judge said it seemed the janitor saw two white male teenagers and falsely stated he could positively identify Ferguson, though Green said it was not a “difference-maker” in the original trial.
Green said he did not find credible Trump’s assertion that prosecutors were to blame for the false testimony. The judge wrote that Trump’s recantation “does not undermine this Court’s confidence in the correctness of the original jury trial verdict and judgment.”
Green also stated in his ruling that Crane did not encourage perjury.
Ferguson’s attorneys called the decision “puzzling” in a statement released by the law office of Kathleen Zellner. The statement added that the decision would be appealed and that “as it now stands, the conviction of Ryan Ferguson is based upon the perjured testimony of Jerry Trump and Charles Erickson.”
The Missouri attorney general’s office defended the conviction during the hearing before Green. Spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said Wednesday that the attorney general’s office is reviewing the decision and declined to comment.