Ryan Ferguson left prison tonight after his murder sentence was overturned by an appeals court, and after he was released a free man he held a press conference to talk about his experience, thank people for their support, and address the issue of wrongful convictions in the American justice system.
On Tuesday evening, Ryan Ferguson walked into the Tiger Hotel, in Columbia, Missouri, to a rousing ovation. His first words were, “Thank you.”
He thanked his parents, his sister, his attorney and his supporters, many of whom swarmed to the hotel after Ferguson was released from the Boone County Jail just before 6 p.m. Tuesday. Just a few hours earlier, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office said it would not file charges against Ferguson, and he was then transported from the Jefferson City Correctional Center to Boone County for his release.
“Having gone through what I’ve gone through with our justice system, I was kind of scared of what would happen next,” he said.
In 2005, Ferguson and an acquaintance, Charles Erickson, were convicted of the Nov. 1, 2001, killing of Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt. Two years after the killing, Erickson confessed, claiming he had “dream-like” memories that he was involved, and he implicated Ferguson.
Erickson was given a 25-year sentence for armed criminal action and second-degree murder; Ferguson was convicted of first-degree robbery and second-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years.
No Physical Evidence
No physical evidence linked either man to the scene.
Five years after that 2004 conviction, Erickson met with Ferguson’s attorneys to read a statement, which Ferguson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, videotaped, admitting he had not been truthful in his testimony against Ferguson.
In April 2012, Ferguson was granted a new court hearing, where Erickson testified that he had lied about Ferguson’s involvement in the murder during his initial trial. Then Trump, the janitor, took the stand and admitted that he, too, had lied at the trial. A convicted sex offender, Trump now claimed that police had pressured him to implicate Ferguson and Erickson from looking at a photo.
But at the time, Judge Daniel Green didn’t believe Erickson’s most recent account and found that there wasn’t enough reliable new evidence to overturn his conviction.
Ferguson appealed Green’s ruling, and this September, Ferguson’s lawyers made arguments in the Western District appeals court, rebutting his conviction. That court overturned Ferguson’s murder conviction last week.
The three justices of the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals said the prosecution withheld numerous pieces of evidence – including how Trump identified the convicted men – that could have changed the outcome of the trial.
When asked about the man who put him behind bars, former Boone County Prosecutor and now Boone County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Crane, Ferguson said he had “no comment.” But Ferguson thanked the attorney general and the justices of the Western District Court of Appeals for looking at the facts and “doing the right thing.”
The attorney general’s decision not to file charges against Ferguson came after examining the appellate court’s opinion and “reviewing the remaining known evidence” in the case, Nanci Gonder, press secretary for Attorney General Chris Koster, said in an email.
Ferguson Not Bitter
Ferguson said he was thankful for his supporters.
“It’s been very helpful to my family,” he said of the support. “I’m happier for my parents right now than I am for me. They’ve had to deal with so much.”
When a reporter asked him what he would say to Heitholt’s family, Ferguson said: “I can’t imagine how they’re feeling, but the one thing I would want for them is to look at all the facts and find justice,” he said.
Ferguson said authorities have tricked them, and he hopes justice can be served.
As for Erickson, who remains in prison, Ferguson said he has no hard feelings toward him.
“The guy’s a lot of things, but the thing he is more so than anything else is innocent,” Ferguson said. “He doesn’t belong in prison. He’s not a killer, and he doesn’t belong in prison.”