What Ryan Ferguson’s jury didn’t hear

11/05/2013 3:20 PM

11/06/2013 9:27 AM

Yet another conviction in Missouri has been overturned because a court found that prosecutors withheld important information from the defense.

This time the defendant is Ryan Ferguson, a Columbia man who was a high school student in 2001 when Kent Heitholt, the sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, was found beaten and strangled to death in the newspaper’s parking lot.

More than two years later, a man who had been partying in Columbia with Ferguson on the night of Heitholt’s murder told police he’d been having dreams about the killing. The ex-friend placed Ferguson at the scene during the trial, and so did a man who’d been working as a janitor at the newspaper.

Both men later recanted that testimony. The janitor said he’d testified against Ferguson because he thought it would please the former Boone County prosecutor, Kevin Crane, who is now a circuit court judge.

It was Crane’s dealings with the janitor that caused the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District to overturn Ferguson’s conviction in a decision released today. Prosecutors didn’t disclose an interview with the janitor’s wife that cast doubt on whether the janitor had seen Ferguson’s picture in a newspaper and connected him with the murder that way. They also failed to disclose that members of the prosecutor’s office contacted the janitor while he was in prison on a parole violation.

“The undisclosed evidence renders Ferguson’s verdict not worthy of confidence,” the appeals court said in its order.

Later, the judges remarked that Ferguson’s conviction was unusual because no physical evidence at the scene connected him or Charles Erickson, the friend with whom Ferguson had been partying that night. Erickson’s confession to police was based mostly on “dreamlike” recollections. (Erickson is serving a 25-year sentence.)

The only eyewitness to place either Ferguson or Erickson in the parking lot was the janitor. And so the state’s withholding of information that casts doubt on the janitor’s story is crucial.

The court ordered Ferguson to be freed within 15 days unless prosecutors order a retrial. If Ferguson is innocent of Heitholt’s murder, he has lost eight years of his life to prison. Investigators have lost valuable time in learning what actually happened that night.

In another recent development, which received less attention, the prosecutor in Randolph County, Mo., notified the court he was dismissing murder charges against Reginald Griffin, a former Missouri death row inmate whose conviction was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court two years ago. Again, the court found that prosecutors had withheld evidence that the defense could have used to establish Griffin’s innocence at trial.

Griffin was released after the supreme court’s decision and has been living in Kansas City, awaiting word on whether he would be retried.

A Chillicothe man, Mark Woodworth, is awaiting a new trial after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors in his case had also withheld vital evidence from the defense.

Those are three of a number of cases in which Missouri defendants have been convicted on murder charges without a fair chance to convince a judge or jury of their innocence. These cases provide temporary “wins” for prosecutors, at the expense of people’s lives and well being, and of justice itself. It is wrong and it needs to stop.

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