Ryan Ferguson, 29, released after serving quarter of 40-year sentence for murder, robbery
Judge in case ruled that prosecution withheld "material" interview with witness's wife
Ferguson says of man who helped land him behind bars, "He's not a murderer"
He says it's "incredibly important" to find the real killer, to whom evidence points
The dramatic exoneration of falsely accused murderer Michael Morton is the subject of CNN Films’ “An Unreal Dream, The Michael Morton Story,” airing Sunday, December 8, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN TV.
Ryan Ferguson, vindicated in the murder of a Missouri newspaper editor, said Wednesday he holds few grudges against an old pal whose bogus testimony landed him in prison for a decade. In fact, he said, Charles Erickson should be a free man, too.
The 29-year-old conceded he has some hard feelings toward Erickson – after all, his 20s were taken from him – but when asked whether he bore ill will toward the former classmate with whom he was drinking the night of the murder, he flatly called for Erickson’s release.
“He’s not a murderer. He’s been taken advantage of by those in the justice system,” Ferguson said.
Having served roughly a quarter of his 40-year sentence, Ferguson refused to speculate on whether prosecutors acted maliciously – despite that two of the prosecution’s key witnesses later recanted their damning testimony and an appeals court judge ruled that prosecutors withheld evidence at trial.
“They’ve taken my 20s, and I’ll never have that back. … Those are amazing years, obviously,” he said. “I’ve never really lived as an adult in the free world.”
The Jefferson City Correctional Center released Ferguson on Tuesday after Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said he wouldn’t retry Ferguson.
Ferguson and Erickson, both 17 at the time, were drinking illegally at a college bar early on November 1, 2001. About five blocks away, Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt turned off his computer after a late night and walked out to the newspaper parking lot shortly after 2 a.m., according to court documents.
Heitholt was struck from behind and strangled with his own belt, according to the documents. Police found hair, blood and fingerprints at the scene, and a police dog tracked a scent to a University of Missouri dorm, according to a website devoted to Ferguson’s defense.
Police questioned a janitor, Jerry Trump, who said he could not identify the individuals involved in the crime, court documents say.
More than two years later, Erickson told police he had “dream-like” memories of committing the crime, resulting in his and Ferguson’s March 2004 arrest. Ferguson told police that he recalled driving Erickson home that night before going home himself, according to the documents.
Erickson implicated Ferguson at trial, as did Trump, who had gone to prison himself on a parole violation the month after the murder. Trump testified that a newspaper article his wife sent him in prison in early 2004 jogged his memory about what he saw that night, court documents say.
That testimony was key to Ferguson’s release, because prosecutors had interviewed Trump’s wife, who denied sending him the article. Prosecutors failed to disclose that interview, and Judge Cynthia Martin, in a summary of last week’s decision, wrote, “The undisclosed interview was material, resulting in a verdict that was not worthy of confidence.”
Ferguson found out he would be released when his lawyer came to the prison, holding up a piece of paper behind the protective glass that separates visitors from inmates. On it, she had quickly scrawled two words: “It’s over.”
“I feel like Jay Leno or something,” Ferguson said to supporters after his release.
He said his first stop as a free man might be at a Dairy Queen, and the profile photo on the Free Ryan Ferguson Facebook site was later updated to show a grinning Ferguson in a gray V-neck sweater, sitting at a bar with a beer and a steak.
Now that he’s out, Ferguson said he and his legal team will be looking into the prosecution’s conduct in the case. He also said it was “incredibly important” to him that Heitholt’s killer be found.
“I believe we know who did it. It’s a matter of proving it and getting help from authorities at this point,” he said, declining to name names. “I think the facts show clearly who did it.”
It’s unclear if Ferguson is entitled to any compensation for his incarceration. Missouri law says wrongly incarcerated people are entitled to restitution, but only if they’re determined to be “actually innocent” as a result of DNA analysis.
Though court documents say none of the DNA at the crime scene matched Ferguson or Erickson, the judge cited only the witness’s wife’s interview in overturning Ferguson’s conviction.
“The individual may receive an amount of fifty dollars per day for each day of post-conviction incarceration for the crime for which the individual is determined to be actually innocent,” the statute says.
Ferguson attributed his grace in this difficult time to his upbringing. While in prison, he read, studied and took care of himself while “preparing for my life” and never allowing himself to “look too far into the future,” he said previously.
He added Wednesday that his confidence in his own innocence also helped him survived his decade in prison.
“I believe in myself. I know what I’ve done in my life. I know what’s right and wrong. … I knew someday I would prove my innocence,” he said. “I just kept moving forward.”
CNN’s Chris Cuomo, David Mattingly and Tristan Smith contributed to this report.