Ryan Ferguson, a 29-year-old Missouri man serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder whose case has been taken up by the national media, may finally be freed after a state appeals court on Tuesday vacated his conviction. Ferguson has spent nearly 10 years in jail for the 2001 murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, who was bludgeoned to death in the newspaper’s parking lot. No physical evidence ever linked Ferguson to the murder. And the key witness who fingered him – his then-drinking buddy Charles Erickson – has since recanted and admitted he fabricated his 2004 confession about killing Heitholt with Ferguson. Neither man knew the newspaper editor. And the prosecution’s second star witness, a janitor at the newspaper, also has recanted. The janitor, Jerry Trump, a convicted sex offender who says he felt pressured to finger Ferguson, admitted he lied when he told police he saw the men fleeing the crime scene. The state has 15 days to decide if it will retry Ferguson.
Multiple previous appeals – spearheaded by Ferguson’s father, Bill Ferguson – have been denied. But the media attention devoted to Ferguson’s case – he has been featured on Today, Dateline, Good Morning America and Nightline, while MTV’s Andrew Jenks also recently took up Ferguson’s cause – has certainly helped to free the Missouri man.
CBS News correspondent Erin Moriarty, who is also an attorney, has been following Ferguson since his 2005 trial. Her first piece aired in early 2006 on 48 Hours. “That was when Jerry Trump’s boss came forward and said he lied on the stand,” explains Moriarty.
Trump had initially told colleagues including Christine Varner, his supervisor at the janitorial company that was contracted by the newspaper, that he could not identify the two men he saw leaving the parking lot the night Heitholt was killed. Varner came forward after she saw the original 48 Hours piece on Ferguson’s case. The CBS News broadcast also got the attention of Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner, who specializes in civil rights cases and has taken Ferguson on as a client.
Moriarty and the 48 Hours team, led by senior investigative producer Gail Zimmerman, were drawn to the case in part because of a rather extraordinary police video of Erickson’s confession in which he clearly has no first-hand knowledge of the crime but insists that he and Ferguson were at a bar on Halloween night 2001 when they ran out of money and decided to go rob someone in order to continue drinking. Heitholt’s wallet was not taken. And Erickson says he came forward years after the murder because he had a dream that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt. Later, it was revealed that Erickson abused drugs and alcohol and often blacked out.
“It was an interesting case to me because of the lack of evidence and that amazing police video of Charles Erickson,” says Moriarty. “I never thought Ryan would be convicted, but I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about whether he was guilty. I didn’t know about Charles Erickson’s background [of substance abuse and mental illness]. So I thought it’s possible, but it seems improbable that these two 17-year-olds supposedly committed a crime at the last minute, left no evidence, took no evidence with them and Charles Erickson doesn’t even remember it until a few years later.”
With a glut of true-crime television clogging the TV dial, it’s easy to dismiss the genre. But it’s hard to argue that such media attention can be the catalyst that leads to exoneration for the wrongly convicted. 48 Hours – which is averaging 5.4 million viewers this season and is the No. 1 nonsports program on Saturday nights – has done three pieces on Ferguson’s case.
“The only way these cases are finally looked at is if there is pressure,” she says.
It also helped that the warden at the Jefferson City Correctional Center was willing to grant unfettered media access to Ferguson and the original trial judge allowed CBS News cameras to film the proceedings; CBS News now films trials it is covering as a matter of course, according to Moriarty.
“If [the police] had not recorded [Erickson’s confession] and if we had not recorded the trial, I think Ryan Ferguson might be spending the next 40 years [in jail],” she says. “The fact that you could see that Charles Erickson did not know what he was talking about in that video but then became this amazing witness at trial, that has really helped Ryan Ferguson. It’s made me feel much stronger now when we’re covering a case, if we feel that the defendant is innocent we have this obligation to shoot the trial because sometimes the transcript isn’t enough.”
And while Moriarty was the first national journalist to look at Ferguson’s case, she takes no umbrage with her “Johnny-come-lately” TV news competitors.
“Pressure is not going to come from one reporter or one show,” she says. “I do a lot of wrongful conviction cases. And sometimes the audience feels [the defendant] got out on a technicality. I want people to know enough about this case to believe that he is innocent. I think that’s important – to give someone their name back. And that only comes from a lot of coverage.”