Ryan Ferguson's fight for freedom
Ever since Ryan Ferguson went to prison in December 2005, his dad, Bill, has been on a relentless quest to prove Ryan's innocence.
"I started going to the crime scene within a week of the arrest," he told, Erin Moriarty. "I'd go down around 1:30 and stay down until 3 o'clock."
He'd spend night after night in the parking lot where sports editor Kent Heitholt was attacked and killed.
Asked how many times he's gone down to the crime scene, Bill Ferguson told Moriarty, "Forty, 50 at least."
He has filed appeal after appeal asking for a new trial for his son, repeatedly pointing out the lack of physical evidence. Every appeal was denied.
"It's just a moment of desperation. Every day we think is there more we can do, is there something else we need to do?" said Bill Ferguson.
Then, in 2009, Bill Ferguson got a new ally.
Kathleen Zellner is an attorney with a reputation for winning freedom for the wrongfully convicted. She took Ryan's case pro bono after seeing a "48 Hours" report.
"What is the best way to describe Ryan Ferguson's case?" Moriarty asked Zellner.
"The analogy I think of is that he's in quicksand. And I'm trying to grab a hold of him," she explained. "... once you're convicted, the system works completely against you. ... It just becomes overwhelming to find evidence that a court will accept."
Zellner got lucky just weeks after coming on board. Out of the blue, Ryan Ferguson got a mysterious letter from his accuser.
"It says, 'Ryan, have your lawyers come speak to me the next time that they're down here ..." said Ferguson.
Zellner wasted no time getting to the prison where Chuck Erickson was housed:
Kathleen Zellner: May I call you Chuck?
Charles Erickson: Mr. Erickson or Charles, I don't go by Chuck.
She videotaped the now "Charles" Erickson as he read a prepared statement:
"Things happened much differently than I had previously stated," he read. "I could not accept in my conscience mind that I was the sole perpetrator."
Four years after his testimony put Ryan Ferguson behind bars, Erickson announced that he had lied. Erickson said he was the one who committed murder:
"I beat the victim, Kent Heitholt, until he was on the ground. Then I took his belt off and strangled him with it," Erickson continued.
Erickson even said that Ryan Ferguson tried to stop him:
"I regret now that I put an innocent man through that. He didn't deserve it," he said.
"Thank God this man has finally admitted that I have nothin' to do with this crime," said Ferguson.
"He's exonerated you by saying you had nothing to do with the murder, but he has said you were there," Moriarty noted. "Isn't there a problem?"
"I believe he thinks that he committed the crime. My personal belief is that he didn't," said Ferguson.
"You don't even think he was there either?"
"I don't think he was there. I know I wasn't there," said Ferguson.
There are problems with this new version of Erickson's story, but from a legal standpoint, Zellner says she doesn't have to make the pieces fit.
"I think what's more important than the details of what he's sayin' about the crime, is he's saying repeatedly, 'I lied to the jury. I committed perjury,'" she explained.
Zellner plans to prove that the tale Erickson told in court was a lie.
"The whole story about the robbery is preposterous," she said.
Zellner points out that Heitholt's wallet wasn't taken -- only his keys and a watch were missing.
"What did they do, take Heitholt's watch back and barter for drinks? ... the person that committed this murder did not do so because he wanted to rob the victim. The person knew the victim and he hated him," she said. "... that's why it was so violent."
Erickson had also claimed that he attacked Kent Heitholt with a tire tool.
Not likely, says Dr. Larry Blum, a forensic pathologist who examined the evidence for Zellner.
"A tire tool would not fit the injuries at all," said Dr. Blum.
A heavy tire tool would have left skull fractures, says Dr. Blum. The victim had none.
"There were no skull fractures associated with any of the outward injuries that were present," he said.
What's more, no blood was found in Ferguson's car. Dr. Blum says Heitholt's wounds are more consistent with a two-pronged tool, like a nail puller.
"In a defensive posture with the hands up," he demonstrated for Moriarty, "it would cause two parallel marks on the skin in this fashion. There were several on Mr. Heitholt's forearm, wrist area, back of the hand."
Blum estimates that the struggle lasted about 6 to 8 minutes. That's important because Michael Boyd, the part-time reporter, puts himself at the scene very close to the time the crime was reported. Boyd says he left the lot around 2:20 a.m., only six minutes before 911 was called.
"What was the last thing Kent said to you?" Moriarty asked Boyd.
"I can't remember the exact words," he replied, "but it was just more in line with, 'See you later. And-- and I thought I would."
"What do you think happened to him?"
"I don't know," said Boyd.
Boyd told "48 Hours" that he returned to the parking lot later that night after learning about the crime. A man, who appears to be Boyd, can be seen a photo taken at the crime scene crime. Curiously, police never interrogated him, even though he was the last known person to see Heitholt alive.
"Did they ever check your car, check your clothes, ask you take a polygraph?" Moriarty asked.
"No. They never asked me to do anything," said Boyd.
"Ask for DNA? Fingerprints?"
"No," Boyd replied. "Nothin', not a thing."
Boyd, who has always cooperated with investigators, denies having anything to do with the crime.
"Did you fight with Kent that night? Did you have anything to do -- with this murder?" Moriarty asked Boyd.
"No, ma'am. No, ma'am," he replied.
Zellner believes police never looked at Boyd as a suspect because they were focused on those men that the janitors saw.
"They have this tunnel vision. They were only investigating white males," she said.
She thinks those young men at the scene could have been college kids, cutting through the lot after the crime.
"They saw a body. And they probably leaned over to see how badly he was hurt. They're just passin' by," said Zellner.
"Do you believe that Charles Erickson or Ryan Ferguson were those two young men?" Moriarty asked.
"No. They were not," Zellner replied. "They'd left the bar, got in Ferguson's car and drove off just like Ferguson said they did. ... Ryan Ferguson should never have been tried for this murder."
And, she says, she intends to prove that at Ryan's new hearing.
"It's a life or death situation for Ryan's future," Zellner said. "Life in prison or freedom."
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