Nothing about overturning Ryan Ferguson’s 2005 murder conviction has been simple, and so it was only natural that his final hours of incarceration were marked by a maddening swirl of uncertainty.
On Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the Missouri Attorney General’s Office announced that it would not pursue a retrial of the 29-year-old man for the murder of a Columbia newspaper editor a dozen years ago, Ferguson took off his prisoner’s garb and put on the civilian clothes provided by his waiting family and lawyer Kathleen Zellner.
Before they could walk out of the prison, however, a prison official unexpectedly informed Ferguson that he’d have to put his inmate’s clothes back on, as he was being transferred back to the Boone County jail for final processing.
“Even when I got to Boone County, I didn’t know if they were going to try to rearrest me,” Ferguson said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
After eight years in prison, however, it is officially, finally, over.
Dressed in jeans and a gray sweater and accompanied by his family a little later, Ferguson greeted a contingent of media and supporters Tuesday night with a smile and raised arms as he entered the Tiger Hotel in downtown Columbia. “I feel like Jay Leno,” he remarked.
Asked what it was like to be walking free, Ferguson responded: “A lot better than it did three hours ago.” During the 20-minute gathering, supporters cheered raucously as Ferguson thanked his family and Zellner, who has been working pro bono on his case since 2009.
“To get arrested and to get charged for a crime you didn’t commit is incredibly easy, and you lose your life very fast,” he said. “But to get out of prison, it takes an army.”
He expressed uncertainty about what, exactly, this newfound freedom would entail. In prison, he said, he did his best to be prepared for the day he got out. He helped inmates attain their GEDs and even led a prison book club.
“I didn’t want to look back and say I missed five, 10 years,” he said. “I didn’t want to get out and still be a 19-year-old kid in my mind. So I’ve done everything I can” not to be.
His father, Bill Ferguson, who has worked tirelessly to prove his son was falsely incarcerated, had earlier told The Star: “When he’s out and actually in my car and I get a big hug from him, that’ll be the best day of my life.”
That day came with a rush, following last week’s opinion from the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals setting aside his son’s 40-year sentence for murder and robbery. “We conclude that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial. His verdict is not worthy of confidence,” the court declared.
The appeals court panel said the prosecution withheld evidence that could have proved helpful to the defendant at trial. It also ordered Ferguson’s release unless the state elected to go forward with a retrial.
As Ferguson waited to see if he would go back to court, Daniel Knight, the current Boone County prosecutor, cited a conflict of interest on Friday and asked Attorney General Chris Koster to step in. An assistant attorney general, Susan Boresi, was appointed, but then the office declined to pick up the case, which had been the subject of national media, such as “Dateline” and “48 Hours,” for retrial.
“After studying the appellate court’s opinion in Ferguson v. Dormire and carefully reviewing the remaining known evidence in the case, the Attorney General’s office will not retry or pursue further action against Ryan Ferguson at this time,” according to the office’s release.
Boone County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Crane, who was the prosecutor in the original case, stood by his earlier judgment.
“I obviously think he’s good for the offense, or I wouldn’t have prosecuted him,” Crane said of Ferguson Tuesday. Of the victim’s family, he said, “They know how I feel.”
He added, however, “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to get in any public back-and-forth with the Fergusons.”
For his part, Ferguson declined to comment about Crane.
Ferguson’s conviction stems from the death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, who was found beaten and strangled in the newspaper’s parking lot around 2 a.m. Nov. 1, 2001. His watch and car keys had been taken.
For two years, little progress was made in the case, until local authorities got a tip that Charles Erickson, a onetime classmate and acquaintance of Ferguson’s, had begun telling friends he’d had dreams suggesting he’d been involved in the murder. He also named Ferguson, then a student at Maple Woods Community College in North Kansas City, as an accomplice.
Although Erickson appeared hazy about the details of the crime in initial interviews with police, he later testified against Ferguson. Without any physical evidence tying either man to the crime, it was Erickson’s testimony — along with that of then-Tribune janitor Jerry Trump, who put Ferguson at the scene of the crime — that led to Ferguson’s 2005 conviction for first-degree robbery and second-degree murder. Erickson received a 25-year term in a plea bargain.
Bill Ferguson began a crusade to prove his son’s innocence.
In 2012, the elder Ferguson told The Star that he put roughly $250,000 into the case’s legal fees, draining his savings account and cashing in his 401(k). He created a
website and Facebook page (which has more than 77,000 likes) and once paid $800 to have a plane with a “freeryanferguson.com” banner fly over Faurot Field prior to a University of Missouri football game.
He also often put aside his job as a real estate agent to relentlessly pursue all angles of the case, including spending three months tracking down a witness who lived in Kansas City. After the shows aired their specials on the case, Bill Ferguson started leading tours of the crime scenes. He would point out what he said were flaws in the investigation, but seemed to make little headway.
In 2009, Zellner — recipient of the American Bar Association’s Pursuit of Justice Award with 13 exonerations to her credit — took Ryan Ferguson’s case.
In April 2012, Ryan Ferguson was granted a habeas evidentiary hearing in Cole County Circuit Court. Zellner introduced new evidence — some of it a result of the elder Ferguson’s diligence — that she argued raised reasonable doubt as to Ferguson’s guilt.
By this time, both Erickson and Trump were saying their testimony had been false. Trump said his trial testimony was influenced by pressure from prosecutors; Erickson insisted much the same.
Crane, the original prosecutor, disputes suggestions that he suborned perjury. “That’s a complete fabrication,” he said. “There was no manipulation, nothing of the kind.”