Ryan Ferguson's fight for freedom

Missouri man is serving 40 years for a murder he says he didn't commit. His accuser says the testimony that sent him away was all a lie. So why is he still in prison?

Ryan Ferguson, left, and his accuser, Charles Erickson.
Ryan Ferguson, left, and his accuser, Charles Erickson.
CBS News/48 Hours

Produced by Gail Zimmerman
[This story previously aired on Feb. 23, 2013. It was updated on June 15.]

(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 spoke publicly ... and what a story he told.


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.

moriarty-ferguson.jpg
"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty talks with Ryan Ferguson

"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.

A father's quest for justice

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.

A rare opportunity

In April 2012, after more than seven years in prison, Ryan Ferguson is about to get the hearing he has dreamed about -- a chance to convince a Missouri state judge to overturn his conviction for the murder of Kent Heitholt.

"Oh, I'm incredibly scared. I'm terrified," he told Erin Moriarty.

"It's shocking that it's taken this long," Ferguson's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, addressed the court. "Ryan Ferguson is actually innocent."

"This is the whole ball game," Zellner told Moriarty. "This is it. It's as if we're retrying the case. "

This is a rare opportunity and the stakes could not be higher. Ryan Ferguson has to do more than just prove that the court made a mistake at his original trial. He has to convince the judge that there's new evidence -- not available before -- that shows he had nothing to do with this murder.

"You have to prove actual innocence," Moriarty noted to Ferguson.

"Absolutely," he replied.

"That's a really high bar, isn't it?"

"It's an incredibly high standard," he said.

"We all believe that ultimately we can get to the truth," Zeller continued in court.

Asked how nervous she was, Zellner told Moriarty, "I'm not really nervous. It's always worked for me when someone is innocent. It's going to work now."

In court, fighting to keep Ferguson in prison are attorneys from the office of the Missouri Attorney General.

"They're not seeking justice. They're just trying to win," said Zellner.

Zellner calls Joseph Buckley, a police interrogation expert.

"Be very leery of the voluntary confession. The person who walks in and says I did it," he testified. "Because it's not typically what murderers do."

Buckley tells the court that Charles Erickson's alleged confession can't be trusted because the police fed him too many details.

"The number one thing you want to do is ask open ended questions," he said.


That's not the case here, says Buckley, when Erickson was asked how Kent Heitholt was strangled:

Chuck Erickson [2004 interrogation]: I think it was a shirt or something.

Officer: I know it wasn't a shirt.

Chuck Erickson: Maybe a bungee cord?

Officer: We know for a fact that his belt was ripped off ... of his pants and he was strangled with his belt.

Chuck Erickson: Really?

Officer: ... does that ring a bell?

Chuck Erickson: No! not at all.

On video, Erickson appears confused when police took him to the crime scene:

Officer: That is the parking spot where Mr. Heitholt had his car parked.

It's impossible, Buckley says, to tell what Erickson knew on his own, even though he was so convincing at trial.

"At the end of the day you don't know what you have," he explained.

"And he was pulling up on the belt ... like this," Erickson had demonstrated at Ferguson's trial.

That testimony was the bedrock of the case against Ferguson and now Erickson says he lied when he testified.

"His story doesn't match this crime scene. That is not what happened," said Zellner.

Zellner's team calls witnesses Ferguson's jurors didn't hear -- like Kim Bennett, who testifies that she saw Ferguson and Erickson drive away from the club, just as Ryan said they did.

Then there's forensic pathologist Larry Blum, who tells the court why he questions the weapon:

Dr. Larry Blum: We see abrasions. Here you see a double.

Kathleen Zellner: Would the tire tool fit the injury pattern?

Dr. Larry Blum: No, it would not.

And there's Michael Boyd, the last known person to see Heitholt alive:

Kathleen Zellner: No one checks either of your cars?

Michael Boyd: That's right.

Kathleen Zellner: And nobody asked you what clothes you were wearing that night?

Michael Boyd: No.

Then Zellner calls someone who she believes will clinch her case: an eyewitness who did testify before.

Back in 2005, janitor Jerry Trump was a critical prosecution witness. His identification of Ryan Ferguson swayed this juror:

"He'd seen 'em and pointed 'em out, and that was pretty much all you needed right there," the juror told "48 Hours".

But now, at the hearing, the ex-con says his trial testimony was all a lie:

Kathleen Zellner: When you pointed to Ryan Ferguson in the courtroom and you said that's the person you saw at The Columbia Tribune parking lot, was that true or false?

Jerry Trump: False.

The truth, he says, is what he first told the police: he could not identify either man he saw that night:

Kathleen Zellner: It was very difficult for you to admit that you'd lied.

Jerry Trump: Absolutely. Extremely difficult.

So, why did he lie? Trump, who served time on a sex offense, says he felt pressured. After Erickson and Ferguson were arrested, prosecutor Kevin Crane called him in for a meeting. Trump says Crane showed him a newspaper with the teens' mug shots.

"He said, 'It would be very helpful if you can help us with this ... by identifying them,'" he explained in court.

Crane assured him they had the right men, Trump says.

"I felt very intimidated, 'cause the only thing I wanted to do, at that point, was to do the right thing. I'd been in enough trouble," said Trump.

After the original trial, Trump was haunted by what he did. This time, when he points to Ryan Ferguson, it's for a very different reason.

"I'd like to have forgiveness from Ryan and his -- and his family," an emotional Trump said on the stand.

"I couldn't even move. I could hardly think. I did feel sorry for the man because you can just see the pain that he's been dealing with," said Ferguson.

"What did you think when you heard Jerry Trump say that?" Moriarty asked Zellner.

"His words were just so true," she replied, "and it was gut-wrenching."

Gut-wrenching because Jerry Trump's testimony comes at a high price: he could be charged with perjury.

Kevin Crane disputes Trump's claims.

Kathleen Zellner Did you show Mr. Trump this article that day?

Kevin Crane: Absolutely not.

Crane admits calling Trump in, but only because he was reviewing what all the witnesses had to say.

"Mr. Trump's in the doorway of my office," Crane said. "And unsolicited, very soon into the conversation, he said, 'I think I can identify these guys.'"

The judge will have to determine which man is telling the truth: the ex-con or the former prosecutor who is now a judge. And he's about to hear from another man who's also changed his story again and again.

What will Charles Erickson say now?

"Logically nobody should believe anything that I say because I'm a liar," he said.

Charles Erickson speaks out

When Ryan Ferguson went to prison, his father, a real estate broker, dropped everything to save him. Ryan's mother and older sister have always been there, too.

"This experience has really forced him to mature very quickly," Bill Ferguson said. "He really values life. He values every single day."

And now, as Ferguson makes his bid for freedom at the 2012 hearing, he comes face to face with the man most responsible for putting him behind bars: Charles Erickson.

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"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty talks with Charles Erickson

"It was a very strange feeling, seeing him again," Ferguson told Erin Moriarty. "I know that he chose to lie about me, so it kinda hurts that a person would do that for reasons that I don't understand."

"It was good to see that he's -- he's -- seems like he's doin' all right and that he's alive," said Erickson.

Charles Erickson is no longer the confident witness he was when he accused Ryan Ferguson of killing Kent Heitholt. In an interview both disturbing and poignant, he agreed to speak for the first time publicly from the Missouri prison where he is serving 12-to-25 years for second-degree murder.

"The reason that I felt I needed to lie and make things up is because I couldn't remember anything," he told Moriarty.

Despite everything he has said before, Erickson now says he has never had any memory of what happened the night Kent Heitholt was killed - at least not after he sneaked into that bar.

"Do you remember leaving the club?" Moriarty asked Erickson.

"No, I don't remember leavin'--at all," he replied.

"Do you -- remember driving home?"

"No, I don't even know if Ryan took me home," he said.

"What's the next thing you remember?"

"I remember wakin' up in the morning and havin' to go to school," said Erickson.

Erickson's use of drugs and alcohol is well documented. On that particular night, he says, along with abusing cocaine and the prescription drug Adderall, he had consumed a large amount of alcohol.

"I remember drinking green drinks, I remembered being pretty intoxicated," Erickson testified in 2012.

"Did you find any blood on your clothing when you woke up?" Moriarty asked.

"No I had no blood on my clothing. I had no injuries. I had no murder weapons," Erickson replied.

"Was there anything through that day that made you think that you had been involved in a horrific murder?"

"No."

And yet, a full two years later after reading an article about the unsolved murder, Erickson suddenly became convinced -- almost obsessed with the idea -- that he might had done something terrible during his blackout.

"I read there were two white guys there -- two white kids. I saw the picture in the paper which is a sketch ... and it looked like me," Erickson said. "I just realized I couldn't remember what I'd done that night."

"Help me out with this. Why would you suddenly think -- just because you couldn't remember what you had done that night, that you might be involved in a murder?" Moriarty asked.

"I'm tryin' to think about that night when I was very intoxicated. There's a lot of drugs in between then and when I'm trying to think about it. I'm high on something," Erickson replied. "I was probably paranoid because of all the drugs that I was doin'."

When Erickson ran into Ferguson at a party, he told him about those strange thoughts.

"Maybe thought I was crazy anyway. 'But man, we -- you're trippin' we didn't do that. You know, you didn't kill that guy,'" said Erickson.

"Why didn't you believe him when Ryan said, 'We didn't do this'?" Moriarty asked.

"It's not that I didn't believe him," he replied. "I'm thinking well, maybe he knows I don't remember, and he doesn't wanna tell me because he thinks I'm gonna say something or he thinks I'm gonna flip out or he thinks I'm gonna kill him because he was a witness. I don't know."

It was an anonymous call to police that landed Erickson -- high on marijuana, he says -- in the police interrogation room.

Erickson spoke to detectives hoping for answers...

"I don't remember a lot of this," he told police during his 2004 interrogation. "I think I just blacked out."

Instead, attorney Kathleen Zellner says, they were focused on finally closing the case.

"Here's a kid that, for whatever reason, is trying to involve himself in this," Zellner told Moriarty.

Detective: I'm going to be point blank with you, pal ... I'm going to start talking and you're going to start listening ...

"... and they've got the perfect person to manipulate, bully, mold his testimony," Zellner continued, "because he's a kid with a drug and alcohol problem... And so they start workin' on him. "

Detective: Do you understand me?

Chuck Erickson: Yes.

Detective: You better start thinking very clearly.

"They take advantage of him and they scared him," said Zellner.

Erickson says he began to panic when detectives told him that Ferguson was about to turn on him and Erickson would take the blame:

Detective: Ryan's going to talk. Don't let Ryan tell the story for you.

"I was scared that he was putting it on me, and I created this story basically to cover myself," Erickson said. "And I did lie. I lied."

"When the detective said, 'it was going to be your head on the chopping block', what did that mean to you?" Moriarty asked.

"It meant execution. I mean, it sounds pretty succinct to me," said Erickson.

By the time Ryan Ferguson stood trial, Erickson had prepared by studying all the police reports and crime scene photos.

"Was it at all hard looking at him in the trial, knowing that your testimony was going to put him in prison?" Moriarty asked.

"No. Because I was just tryin' to survive," Erickson replied. "It's really hard to - to -- admit that you -- you know, really screwed somebody over."

Four years after the trial, a sober Erickson began to have serious doubts about what he did.

"I knew I sold Ryan out by basically, in effect, traded his life for mine," he said. "... and he deserved a fair trial, because I knew that I lied."

That's why, he says, he spoke to Ryan Ferguson's lawyer in 2009, and took full responsibility for the crime.

"I could not accept in my conscience mind that I was the sole perpetrator and aggressor," he said at he time.

But even that was a lie, he says.

"Did you remember actually having committed it all on your own?" Moriarty asked.

"No, I just didn't think that there was anything else I could say," Erickson replied. "I thought that the only way I could help Ryan ... was to say that I'd done everything. He didn't know what I was gonna do. He tried to stop me. "

Erickson says the real truth is what he tells the court at the hearing in April 2012: that he doesn't know what happened that Halloween night ... and never has.

"I lied and said I -- I remembered things I didn't remember," Erickson said. "And -- I don't wanna die, you know, knowin' that - I -- I did the wrong thing."

In cross examination, one of the assistant attorneys general makes it clear that he doesn't believe Erickson.

Q: You've testified in trial, in front of a jury, under oath, and said you did it.

Charles Erickson: Yeah, because I was -- I had to save my ass. ... And it wasn't true. I don't remember any of it. But yeah.

Q: Are you saying then you remembered and now you don't today?

Charles Erickson No, I'm just good at makin' stuff up.

"He's saying, 'I don't know one way or the other because I don't remember.' And that's what he told them the first night they met him in March of 2004 ... He hasn't changed at all," Zellner told Moriarty. "I think his explanation for what happened to him is very plausible. ... You have a 17-year-old boy ... who is drunk out of his mind and blacks out.

"Should they have to tried to build a case off of him? No, they should not have," she continued.

"You try -- not knowing if you killed somebody, and -- and see how it feels, man," said Erickson said in court.

And, like Jerry Trump, Erickson is taking a considerable risk.

"He's risking being charged with perjury and having his deal withdrawn, which means they can resentence him. So he could face a life sentence," Zellner explained. "He doesn't need to be doing this."

"Am I telling the truth now? I'm telling you the truth now. Do I expect you to believe it? No, I don't expect you to believe it," said Erickson.

"He had lied all the other times. But he is telling the truth now. ... he blacked out that night. He has no idea what happened," said Bill Ferguson.

But will the judge believe that? And will this hearing convince him that Ryan Ferguson is an innocent man?

"I don't belong here at all. All the evidence shows that, all the testimony shows that. There's nothing left to keep me in this place," said Ferguson.

Waiting on a decision

"Everything is wrong about this case, everything's wrong about it. It makes absolutely no sense," Kathleen Zellner told the court.

The only evidence that ever linked Ryan Ferguson to Kent Heitholt's murder was the word of two witnesses. Now that both have recanted - under oath -- Zellner feels she's done her job.

"It ought to be plain as day to anyone looking at it, this case is just a complete fraud," she told reporters outside the courthouse.

"We'll just wait for the judge's decision," a prosecutor told the reporters.

Ryan's father Bill Ferguson is more upbeat than he's been for years.

"We feel like it went very, very well," he told the reporters.

Prodded by a reporter, he fantasizes about his son's first day of freedom.

"Whatever he wants to do, the rest of us will support 100 percent. I got a feeling he's going to be wanting a good hot shower and a good meal," Bill Ferguson said.

The judge promises a quick decision, but Ryan Ferguson has to wait six-and-a-half months. Then, the appeal is denied.

"I just sat in this room by myself. And just stared at the floor ... and its frustrating because you don't know, even with all the facts, if you'll ever get your life back," Ryan Ferguson told Erin Moriarty.

The evidence that Judge Daniel Green heard wasn't enough to convince him that Ferguson is innocent, so his conviction will stand.

"It caught me so off guard ... I was just totally blindsided," Bill Ferguson said of he judge's ruling. "You know, I almost -- my knees almost buckled. And I remember -- supporting myself against the wall of the hall, and I was just -- it was just surreal. You know, it was like -- the worst dream possible."

In his decision, the judge sides with the Missouri Attorney General and says he believes Charles Erickson was a far more credible witness seven years ago at Ryan Ferguson's trial than he is today.

"This judge, he didn't say Erickson was a liar all the way through," Zeller said. "He cherry-picked out his trial testimony and said, 'Oh, no. He was telling the truth then, but he subsequently became a liar." It - it -- it's just a -- it doesn't make any sense."

What's more, Judge Green says that much of Zellner's new evidence wasn't new at all -- that experts like pathologist Larry Blum were available in 2005, and could have been called at Ferguson's trial.

Still, one part of Judge Green's decision could help Ferguson. The judge does believe that Jerry Trump lied at the trial in 2005, although he doesn't believe the prosecutor asked him to.

"That's good. But then, he took that away by saying it didn't matter. It didn't matter because there was Chuck Erickson," Zellner said. "So what we've got right now is Ryan Ferguson's life and his conviction rest on the testimony of Charles Erickson at trial."

"That's it?" Moriarty asked.

"And that's it. That's all that's holding the case together," said Zellner.

"So as you sit here today, do you think you had anything to do with this?" Moriarty asked Charles Erickson.

"No," he replied.

"Do you think Ryan Ferguson did?"

"No," said Erickson.

"What if Ryan never gets out of prison? How will you feel about that?"

"I will feel like I have done all that I've can to remedy the situation," he replied. "And that I made a lotta mistakes on the way, but in the end, I tried to do the right thing."

"You don't think this decision's gonna hold up?" Moriarty asked Zellner.

"No. It will not," she replied. "This cannot stand. This cannot be the final decision, the final chapter for Ryan Ferguson."

Ryan's father is determined to press on -- outlining his son's plight on a website he runs.

Website: Free Ryan Ferguson.com

"We reached a million people on Ryan's birthday," he said of the site.

Bill Ferguson is also offering a $10,000 reward for finding the man who was seen in the parking lot that night.

"... we really want to tempt the public, if they know something, to come forward," he said.

The case has already caught the eye of Chip Rosenbloom, one of owners of the St Louis Rams -- inspiring him to produce a feature film documentary directed by MTV host Andrew Jenks. It promises to bring even more exposure Ryan's story.

As of now, Ryan Ferguson is still in prison. Yet the fact remains that there are now no witnesses who say he killed Kent Heitholt. None. And there never has been any physical evidence to tie him to the crime. So Ryan somehow managed to kill a man without being seen, leaving no trace behind or he is an innocent man.

"It's the first time, I would say, in my career of 28 years, that I felt ashamed to be a lawyer," Zellner told Moriarty. "I've always felt that the system works ... so this time, I thought, 'This is just so unfair.' ... It's -- and it made me more determined ... To get him out. Because he is absolutely innocent. ... And I don't want to be part of a system that cannot recognize and correct an error."

Ryan Ferguson is not angry at Charles Erickson. He says he's just relieved that he told the truth.

"It looked so good this time. Does that make it more difficult to have optimism?" Moriarty asked.

"I think that makes it -- just phenomenally more difficult," Ferguson replied.

"Have you lost all hope?"

"I haven't lost all hope," he said.

"But you sound discouraged."

"Yeah, yeah," Ferguson said, "but ... I'm an innocent man, and the facts prove it."

Ryan Ferguson is appealing the judge's decision.

He also applied to the governor of Missouri for a pardon. The request is now being considered.

Charles Erickson statement [Aug. 29, 2011] : Part 1 | Part 2

  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"

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