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Did a friend's false confession lead to Ryan Ferguson's wrongful conviction?

Ryan Ferguson: Wrongfully Convicted
Ryan Ferguson: Wrongfully Convicted 44:38

Erin Moriarty is a "48 Hours" correspondent. She's covered the questionable murder conviction of Missouri man Ryan Ferguson since 2005. Ferguson's conviction was thrown out eight years later after he had spent nearly 10 years in jail.

When I interviewed Boone County, Missouri Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane back in 2005, right after Ryan Ferguson was convicted for the murder and robbery of Kent Heitholt, I asked a question that no one else had -- was it possible that Ferguson's co- defendant Charles Erickson falsely confessed to murder when he implicated Ferguson?

Ryan Ferguson
"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty speaks with Ryan Ferguson in prison 48 Hours

After all, none of the physical evidence found at the crime scene tied either Ferguson or Erickson to the murder. And when police first interrogated Erickson, he appeared to know very few details other than what investigators told him and what he read in news accounts.

WATCH: "48 Hours:" Ryan Ferguson: Wrongfully Convicted

Prosecuting Attorney Crane immediately scoffed at my question, brushing it off with a claim that false confessions might happen "on the East Coast," implying that they just couldn't ever happen in Columbia, Missouri. That conversation took place more than a decade ago.

Today, we know Crane, now a county judge, was wrong.

False confessions take place everywhere in this country. In fact, one quarter of those defendants exonerated by DNA evidence had confessed to the crime they clearly didn't commit. What's more, almost a decade after Crane put both Ferguson and Erickson behind bars for murder, there is growing evidence that both are innocent of Heitholt's murder.

Ferguson's conviction was vacated by a Missouri Appellate Court in November 2013, after the judges ruled that Judge Crane, while prosecutor, withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. After the state declined to retry him, Ferguson was released from prison. However, Erickson, who is beginning his 12th year in prison, is still behind bars.

He is hoping that he too will get another chance. But he will have to fight for it; there may still be no one in the district attorney's office willing to acknowledge that false confessions occur.

"We were at the last stage," says Ryan Ferguson's lawyer 00:17

Columbia County Police vowed to look for the real killer, but as long as Erickson is in prison for the same murder, it doesn't seem likely that they can or will.

Why would Erickson confess to a crime he didn't commit? And if he truly didn't know what happened the night of Heitholt's death, why would he testify against his high school friend?

It is the oddest case and the focus of this week's "48 Hours" update: Ryan Ferguson: Wrongfully Convicted.

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