NEW YORK (CBS) Ryan Ferguson is not getting out of prison anytime soon. His latest appeal was turned down by Boone County, Missouri Circuit Judge Jodi Asel, in a decision that was released this week.
If you watch 48 Hours Mystery regularly, it is hard to forget Ryan Ferguson or his 2005 trial in Columbia, Miss. Ferguson was convicted, along with a high school friend, of the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt, the Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor. What makes this young man's case so memorable is that there was so little evidence against him other than a dream of his co-defendant, Chuck Erickson. Really. A dream that Erickson had two and a half years after the murder which led him to confess to the Columbia police.
Kent Heitholt was killed in the early morning hours on November 1, 2001 as he was leaving the newspaper office. He was brutally battered, beaten, and left to die in the parking lot after stopping to feed a stray cat. There was plenty of physical evidence left at the scene, yet none of that evidence connects either Ferguson or Erickson. In fact, neither of the boys, who were 17 at the time of the murder, were even suspects until early 2004 when Chuck Erickson was questioned by police. Erickson had been telling friends that he had suddenly "dreamed" that he and Ferguson had killed Heitholt after drinking and reveling on Halloween night, but he could not remember any details.
In the initial interviews, Erickson, a slight, large-eyed young man with often a lost expression on his face, appeared confused and unable to recall any of the specifics of what was a horrific event. When the police asked what weapon was used to strangle Heitholt, Erickson offered a few options including a bungee rope. He seemed to be shocked when the police told him that, in fact, the weapon was Heitholt's own belt.
He had that same "deer-in-the-headlights" look when police drove him around the crime scene and asked him for more details. He had to be told which way the killer or killers fled, based on a trail of blood and footprints that led away from the crime. (Blood and footprints that don't match either young man.)
Erickson was a very different witness by the trial. After numerous interviews by the police and prosecutor, Kevin Crane, Erickson was a self-assured witness who was the star witness at Ryan Ferguson's trial and whose critical testimony put Ferguson behind bars. The prosecutor also produced a couple of eyewitnesses at trial who identified the teens as the killers, one of whom now says she was mistaken. Her change of heart was part of Ferguson's latest request for a new trial.
Are Ryan Ferguson and Chuck Erickson killers? The shocking lack of evidence and inconsistencies in the case make me wonder. Yet, at the same time, I understand why the jurors were so persuaded by Chuck Erickson. Even after I watched police seemingly coach and feed Erickson details, I was struck at trial with his confidence in the story and his own willingness to go to prison for that crime! Would you go to prison for a story you dreamed up unless you truly believed in it?
Ryan Ferguson will continue to appeal his conviction. An attorney told me this week that it can take 15 years or more to get a new trial, even in cases where there is clear evidence that the defendant was innocent. If that is true, Ryan Ferguson, now 24, has a long way to go.
We'll keep you updated.
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Erin Moriarty is an award-winning correspondent for CBS News and has been with 48 Hours since 1990. Drawing on her training as an attorney, she has examined some of the most important issues of the day, including DNA testing in death-row cases, the abortion controversy and battered women's syndrome. She covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine High School shootings and the 9/11 investigation, overseas. Moriarty has won nine national Emmy Awards and a 2001 Press Club Award, among others.