Bill Ferguson’s unrelenting, nine-year struggle to reverse his son Ryan’s murder conviction might finally be drawing to a close.
“The end,” said Ferguson, reached by phone Tuesday, “is definitely near.”
A panel of the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals vacated Ryan’s conviction and 40-year prison sentence for the 2001 murder and robbery of a popular Columbia newspaper editor.
The court, in its ruling Tuesday, said the prosecution withheld evidence from defense attorneys that could have helped Ryan Ferguson at his trial.
The court ordered Ferguson’s release from the Department of Corrections unless the state files for a retrial. Chicago-based attorney Kathleen T. Zellner, who took on the case pro bono, said in a Tuesday evening news conference in Columbia that her goal was to have Ferguson home for Thanksgiving.
Tuesday’s decision comes more than nine years after Ferguson — then a student at Maple Woods Community College — was charged in the case of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, who was found beaten and strangled to death in the newspaper’s parking lot the day after Halloween.
The case stumped local authorities until 2004, when Charles Erickson, a Rock Bridge High School classmate of Ferguson, told police he might have had something to do with the murder. He eventually named Ferguson — with whom he’d been at a nearby bar on that night — as an accomplice. Ferguson vehemently denied any involvement.
With no physical evidence, the prosecution relied almost solely on Erickson’s testimony, as well as that of Tribune janitor Jerry Trump, both of whom placed Ferguson at the murder scene. In 2005, Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years on second-degree murder and first-degree robbery counts. Erickson received a 25-year term.
Since then, Bill Ferguson has been instrumental in drawing attention to the case. He also enlisted the high-profile Zellner, who has worked since 2009 to get the conviction overturned.
Still, more than a dozen legal efforts failed, and even now, the Fergusons are preparing themselves for the possibility of another trial.
“Based on the state’s record of previous people that had their sentences vacated, this is a standard procedure they seem to use,” the older Ferguson said.
A statement released by the office of current Boone County Prosecutor Daniel Knight said he is reserving comment until reading the opinion and discussing it with the state attorney general’s office. Besides the route of a new trial, authorities could ask the Missouri Supreme Court to visit the case.
Another prosecution could prove more difficult, however, since during an April 2012 evidentiary hearing, both Erickson and Trump recanted their testimony. Trump described feeling pressured into testifying against Ferguson by the former county prosecutor, Kevin Crane. At different times, Erickson has indicated that he committed the crime alone or that he has no memory of the night in question.
Zellner praised the Western District Court of Appeals report, which noted the prosecution’s failure to share evidence from an interview of Trump’s wife that could have raised questions about Trump’s ability to identify Ferguson.
“This trial was not fair because it violated the Constitution,” Zellner said.
After receiving the news from Zellner earlier in the day, Bill Ferguson said, “Nine and a half years ago was the worst day of my life. And today is almost the best day.
“When he gets truly and unconditionally released,” he added, “that’ll be the best day.”