Appellate Practice

Video of cohort 'confession' and TV coverage credited in reversal of murder conviction

A man serving a 40-year prison sentence for the murder of a newspaper sports editor he says he did not commit has had his conviction reversed by a Missouri appellate court

Granting writ of habeas corpus to Ryan Ferguson, the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District found that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence that would have helped him discredit witnesses and might have led to his being found not guilty in the slaying of Kent Heitholt, according to the Kansas City Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Drinking buddy Charles Erickson and another witness who linked Ferguson to the crime have since recanted their testimony. The lack of disclosure by the prosecution of information casting doubt on their credibility was critical, given the absence of direct evidence implicating Ferguson, explained the appellate panel in its Tuesday opinion (PDF).

“This was not an ordinary case. No physical evidence tied Erickson or Ferguson to Mr. Heitholt’s murder or the crime scene,” the panel writes. “Physical evidence found at the scene did not match to either Erickson or Ferguson as the source. … Erickson’s confession, which originated from ‘dreamlike’ memories, was seriously challenged by Ferguson at trial. Ferguson emphasized police interrogation tactics which cast doubt on whether Erickson’s memories were genuine or suggested by the police.”

Key to the reversal of Ferguson’s conviction was video of a bizarre confession by Erickson, who said, years after the crime occurred, he had dreamed that he might himself have been involved in the crime with Ferguson, as well as coverage over the past eight years by the 48 Hours true-crime television program, recounts the Hollywood Reporter.

Unlike Erickson’s testimony against Ferguson at a 2005 trial, which appeared credible, his videotaped confession showed he seemingly had no clue about the crime, according to reporter Erin Moriarty of 48 Hours, who is also an attorney. The CBS News program included footage of the Ferguson trial in its coverage of the case.

“The fact that you could see that Charles Erickson did not know what he was talking about in that [confession] video but then became this amazing witness at trial, that has really helped Ryan Ferguson,” Moriarty told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s made me feel much stronger now when we’re covering a case, if we feel that the defendant is innocent we have this obligation to shoot the trial because sometimes the transcript isn’t enough.”

The state has 15 days to decide whether to retry Ferguson in the felony second-degree murder and first-degree robbery case.

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