Summer ruling planned in murder case appeal

A central Missouri judge is to decide this summer whether to overturn the conviction of a Columbia man for the 2001 murder of a newspaper sports editor.

Cole County Judge Dan Green heard testimony this week on whether to set aside the conviction and 40-year sentence of Ryan Ferguson for the slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.

The hearing concluded Friday. Written arguments are due June 15, and Green said he will rule shortly thereafter. Regardless, the case could be reviewed by Missouri appellate courts.

At the weeklong hearing, another man imprisoned for the killing testified that he had lied about Ferguson’s role. A former janitor at the newspaper recanted previous testimony about seeing Ferguson at the scene.

Heitholt was beaten and strangled with his own belt as he walked to his car in the newspaper’s downtown parking lot early on Nov. 1, 2001.

Police didn’t get a break in the case until 2004, when Chuck Erickson came forward to confess that he had memories — some from his dreams — that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt in a robbery after running out of money at a nearby nightclub. Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson.

Erickson, who was 17 at the time of the killing, now says that his testimony was a lie and that Ferguson didn’t actually kill or attack Heitholt. He testified this week that he doesn’t recall whether he was involved in the killing because he had been drinking and taking drugs that night.

Earlier in the week, appellate prosecutors from the state attorney general’s office suggested that Erickson’s change of heart was motivated by self-preservation. Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce said Erickson sought to change his story only after being labeled a “rat” and “snitch” in prison, and assaulted by other inmates.

Erickson denied that he was hoping to receive a lesser sentence or his own release.

Erickson’s original attorney, Mark Kempton, also testified for the state. He said Erickson never indicated any uncertainty about his involvement in Heitholt’s slaying.

“He told me he wanted to plead guilty,” Kempton said.

Also testifying this week was a Missouri judge, Kevin Crane of Boone County Circuit Court. He denied that, as prosecutor in the case, he told the former janitor what to say while building the case against Ferguson.

Ferguson insists that he drove Erickson home after they left the nightclub, then went home himself.