KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After spending nearly a decade behind bars for crimes he claims he didn’t commit, Ryan Ferguson is now on the path to being a free man. An opinion filed on Tuesday in the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals has vacated his second-degree murder and first-degree robbery convictions.
Ferguson was serving a 40-year prison sentence after being convicted for the murder and robbery of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in 2005. Heitholt was found strangled outside of the newspaper’s offices on November 1, 2001. Ferguson's conviction was keyed by two state witnesses who have admitted they gave false testimony.
A three-judge panel granted Ferguson’s request for habeas corpus relief and therefore, ordered his release from state custody pending action taken by state attorneys. They have 15 days to file an appeal or request that the Missouri Supreme Court hears the case. If they choose not to appeal, Ferguson will be freed with that decision.
If the state does appeal, Ferguson’s legal team is expected to apply for bail, which would grant his release from prison pending further hearings. A Facebook page operated by Ferguson’s family called ‘Free Ryan Ferguson’ speculated they would be reunited with their son in the next seven to 15 days.
If the state doesn't take any action, it will be the end of a long appeals process for Ferguson, who was convicted despite not being connected to any physical evidence from the crime scene. One of the men who recanted his testimony, Charles Erickson, initially told investigators that he and Ferguson and robbed Heitholt for money to buy alcohol. Erickson was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Erickson confessed two years after Heitholt’s murder due to ‘dream like’ memories. Despite sharp cross-examination from Ferguson's defense team that raised suspicion, Erickson’s testimony was admissible as was newspaper janitor Jerry Trump’s. Trump gave eyewitness testimony in 2004 that implicated Ferguson despite saying in 2001 that he could not identify either of the two men he had seen leaving the murder scene.