Ryan Ferguson's fight for freedom
Ryan Ferguson, left, and his accuser, Charles Erickson (CBS News/48 Hours)
(CBS NEWS) JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- I'm Erin Moriarty. I have been covering Ryan Ferguson's case now for more than seven years. Ferguson was charged with killing a man named Kent Heitholt on Halloween night 2001.
From the beginning, there was just something not right about this case. There was plenty of physical evidence at the crime scene -- hair, fingerprints and bloody shoe prints -- but none of it matched him.
The entire case hinged on one troubled accuser: Charles Erickson.
Bit by bit, the case against Ferguson has fallen apart, and yet, his conviction has been upheld time and time again. This time, however, an unexpected development may make a difference.
For the first time, Ferguson's accuser is speaking publicly ... and what a story he tells.
Ryan Ferguson, 27, has something that sets him apart from other prison inmates: a chance at freedom.
"We've been fighting it for eight years now. And we're very, very close. ... Gotta be positive and hopeful. I believe we'll find justice," he told Moriarty. "I look forward to getting my life back."
Finally, a judge has agreed to take a new look at his case.
"Is there a side of you that's afraid to hope that this is finally your chance?" Moriarty asked.
"Absolutely," Ferguson replied. "You really can't predict what any of these people are going to do and when they are going to do it. You just gotta keep fighting."
The circumstances that brought Ferguson to the Missouri state prison are bizarre. They began, appropriately enough, on Halloween night in 2001. Kent Heitholt, the well-liked sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, was murdered.
Asked how he would describe Heitholt's personality, Boyd told Moriarty, "Wonderful. ... wonderful guy to work with and easy to learn from. ... He was one of the most popular men I've known.
Part-time sports writer Michael Boyd, who spoke with "48 Hours" in 2010, was among the handful of people working into the early morning hours with Heitholt. Sometime after 2 a.m., Boyd recalls, he left the office. Heitholt came out a few minutes later and they chatted.
Asked if Heitholt seemed concerned with anything at that moment, Boyd said, "No ... just, like normal. It was just a normal night."
Shortly after Boyd drove off, two janitors came out on the loading dock and noticed Heitholt's car was still there.
One of those janitors, Shawna Ornt, said "I had that gut feeling that something was wrong."
Ornt remembers seeing two shadowy figures emerge from behind the car. One, a college-aged male, she says, stopped to speak.
"... looked me dead in the eyes and said, 'Somebody's hurt,' and he walked off casually like nothing had happened," she said.
Scared, Ornt went for help. Two reporters rushed out and found their boss by his car in a pool of blood. Kent Heitholt had been bludgeoned and strangled.
"He's 6'4"," Boyd said. "No one's gonna mess with Kent. Who was gonna mess with Kent?"
Earlier on that same night, Ryan Ferguson was at a local bar, just blocks away from the murder scene. He and another 17-year-old, Chuck Erickson, had sneaked in together.
"We were there for approximately two hours -- probably 11:30 to 1:30," Ferguson explained. "And I drove him home and went home myself."
"Did you have anything to do with the death of Kent Heitholt?" Moriarty asked.
"Absolutely not," Ferguson replied.
Whoever did kill Kent Heitholt may have left clues. Police found hair, fingerprints and bloody shoe prints. They also spoke with the janitors. One "could not provide a detailed description" of the two men he saw. But the other, Shawna Ornt, did. Police released a sketch and fielded dozens of leads; all were dead ends.
"It just doesn't seem possible how -- that anybody could hurt him. And ... bein' as nice as he was, why," said Michael Boyd.
Two years passed with no breaks in the case. Then, police got a strange tip. Chuck Erickson had told friends that he might have been involved in the crime.
Erickson soon found himself in a police interrogation room.
"It's just so foggy. Like I could just be sitting here fabricating all of it," he told police.
He didn't seem to know many details, even when they took him to the crime scene:
Chuck Erickson [in police car]: Can you tell me exactly where this happened?
Detective: Parking lot is right there. Does this look familiar to you?
Chuck Erickson: I don't remember most of what happened.
But Erickson seemed eager to cooperate, especially as the questioning got aggressive:
Detective: It's you that is on this chopping block ... and I don't want to hear, "Oh, all the sudden I just think I may be fabricating all of this."
Eventually, Erickson told them what they wanted to hear. He said that he and Ryan Ferguson had run out of drinking money and decided to get more by robbing someone:
Detective: Whose idea was it?
Chuck Erickson: It was Ryan's idea
Detective: Ryan's idea...
Ferguson, then in college, was also brought in.
"I wasn't there. I did not do anything," he told police.
Police questioned him for hours, but he never wavered.
"You're trying to get me to admit to something I didn't do," he told police. "I'm not lying to you man, I was not there."
In March 2004, both men were arrested and charged with murder. Erickson took a plea - 25 years -- and agreed to testify against Ferguson.
"It's beyond comprehension that Ryan could ever be in this situation," Ryan's father, Bill, told Moriarty. "It tears at your heart."
When Ferguson stood trial a year later, Charles Erickson - the once seemingly confused teen, had become a polished witness.
"I'm just doing this because I know it's the right thing to do," he told the court.
The story Erickson told was riveting and revolting:
Chuck Erickson: I hit him.
Prosecutor Kevin Crane: You hit him just like that?
Chuck Erickson: Well, I hit him harder than that.
Prosecutor Kevin Crane: How'd you hit him?
Chuck Erickson: I hit him like that (demonstrates).
After he hit him with a tire tool, Heitholt fell to the ground, Erickson said. Then, Ferguson turned Heitholt's belt into a weapon:
"He was down here and he had a belt, and he had his foot on his back on the victim's back and he was pulling up on the belt," Erickson demonstrated for the court.
Not everything Erickson said made sense. For one thing, he claimed that he and Ferguson returned to the bar after the murder. By law, the bar had already closed.
What's more, none of that physical evidence -- nothing - tied Ferguson or Erickson to the scene.
And Shawna Ornt, the janitor who helped police create the sketch, said she couldn't identify either man.
But prosecutor Kevin Crane had a Trump card: Jerry Trump, a convicted sex offender, was the janitor who told police he couldn't describe the men he saw at the crime scene. And yet, at Ferguson's trial...
Prosecutor Kevin Crane: If you see the individual ... would you point to that individual please?
Jerry Trump: Yes (points to Ryan).
Trump claimed his memory had been jogged by the arrest photos in the newspaper.
"I recognized the two pictures. I've seen these two faces before - at the Tribune that night Kent was killed," he testified.
With two eyewitnesses against him, Ryan Ferguson was doomed. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 years.
"It's a horrible feeling. It's like you're drowning and there's nothing you can do about it," Bill Ferguson said of the verdict.
But after serving four of those years, Ryan got an unexpected letter.
"I didn't know if I should open it. I didn't know if I should just look at it -- I was scared of it," Ferguson said.
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