Ryan Ferguson is free at last, and few tales of exoneration of the victim of a faulty conviction after years of incarceration in a maximum security prison have warmed my heart more.
In a criminal justice system that is based upon an adversarial process, with two sides facing each other in a court of law, when police and prosecutors overreach, break the rules, and become overwrought with a "win at all costs" mentality, justice suffers.
And the fine and delicate line between fervent advocacy on the part of police and prosecutors, and improper overreaching in an attempt to secure the almighty conviction can be blurry indeed, particularly in a high profile case where public opinion calls out for the crime to be solved, for the perpetrators to be punished, and the prosecutor in charge of the whole affair is an elected official.
Such were the forces in play in the Ryan Ferguson prosecution.
Ferguson was convicted of the slaying of Kent Heithold in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Mo., where Mr. Heithold served as sports editor, in the wee morning hours on November 1, 2001.
The crime went unsolved for two years, with no leads of sufficient promise to initiate a prosecution.
Some two years after the murder, in late 2003 or early 2004, one Charles Erickson, who had been to a Columbia bar with Ryan Ferguson the night of the murder, and had partied so much that he admittedly blacked out, confided to friends after reading a newspaper account of the murders that he had had "dream like" memories that he and Ferguson may have committed the crime.
These friends contacted authorities, who hauled Erickson in for questioning. Protracted video excerpts of the actual police interrogation of Erickson can be viewed on the website freeryanferguson.com. This video offers a textbook example of police interrogation tactics, which include elements of overreaching, intimidation, and manipulation, perpetrated on the obviously overmatched and intimidated Erickson, who ultimately implicated himself and Ryan Ferguson in the murder.
When Ryan Ferguson was hauled in for questioning, similar tactics by police interrogators, with repeated overtures that he was the one, and they knew it, resulted in a steadfast series of responses to those tactics by Ferguson that he was not going to confess to something he did not do.
No physical evidence tied him to the scene of the crime.
There had been no eyewitnesses until one Jerry Trump, a former janitor at the Tribune, claimed from his own prison cell that he had seen and now could identify Erickson and Ferguson at the scene of the murder that night from a newspaper photograph sent to him by his wife while Trump himself was doing time for a parole violation, after Erickson and Ferguson had been arrested, more than two years later.
However, Mrs. Trump, in a follow up interview by authorities, stated that she had no recollection of sending the newspaper to her husband in prison, as he had stated.
These facts, that the identification from the only purported eyewitness to the crime was first brought to light by him while he himself was sitting in a prison cell, and that his alleged identification came from a newspaper sent to him in prison by his wife, that she said she didn't recall ever sending him, were not disclosed to the defense, as required by Constitutionally mandated court disclosure requirements.
Ryan Ferguson was found guilty by a jury in 2005, and sentenced to 40 years in prison..
Since the trial, the non-disclosure by the prosecution about Trump's evidence has come to light.
Trump has also recanted his identification Ferguson and Erickson in subsequent court proceedings, and has asked forgiveness for his false testimony, which he claims was suggested to him by authorities while he was in prison.
Erickson, who continues to sit in prison, has also recanted.
And so the Missouri Court of Appeals, in an extraordinarily comprehensive and well-reasoned written opinion, has determined that the conviction of Ryan Ferguson be set aside for this material breach of disclosure by the prosecution of the facts that so significantly call into question the credibility of the only purported eyewitness.
Shortly after his release, the attorney general's office, with virtually no credible evidence left to tie Ryan Ferguson to the crime, announced that he would not be re-tried.
And Ryan Ferguson is a free man.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org