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Ryan Ferguson Freed After Decade in Prison

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on November 14, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ryan Ferguson, a Missouri man who spent nearly a decade behind bars for the murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, was freed this week after the Missouri Western District Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.

Ferguson, now 29, was convicted in 2005 of robbing and killing Heitholt in a drunken escapade. In large part, the conviction stemmed from the testimony of Ferguson's friend Charles Erickson.

For all these years, Ferguson has maintained his innocence. Now, eight years later, he's officially a free man.

A Conviction Hanging by Threadbare Testimony

On the night of the murder in 2001, Ferguson and Erickson were drinking at a club near the newspaper parking lot where Heitholt was killed, reports The Washington Post.

It wasn't until 2004 when Erickson told friends he had dream-like memories that he and Ferguson may have killed Heitholt. Erickson ultimately confessed to the crime and implicated Ferguson.

The strongest evidence linking Ferguson to the murder were testimonies from Erickson and Jerry Trump, a janitor at the Tribune's building. However, both witnesses later recanted, reports the Post.

Prosecution's Improper Withholding of Evidence

Ferguson's freedom ultimately hinged on not the recanted testimony but the unlawful way authorities conducted their investigation.

Last week's appeals court ruling said Ferguson was deprived a fair trial after the prosecution repeatedly failed to disclose evidence that could have changed the outcome of the trial.

The court took aim at an investigator in the Boone County prosecutor's office who, the court's opinion states, should have shared details about an interview he had with Trump's wife that would have raised questions about Trump's version of events. The appeals panel cited that as part of a troubling pattern in which prosecutors failed to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence to Ferguson's attorneys.

Ultimately, the appeals court concluded that by failing to share important evidence with Ferguson's attorneys before trial, the prosecutors violated Brady v. Maryland.

As a result, the court granted Ferguson's request for habeas relief and vacated Ferguson's conviction.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office said it would not retry or pursue further action against Ferguson at this time, reports Reuters.

Regardless of the prosecution's motives behind withholding the evidence, the case is a humbling cautionary tale on the perils of haphazard evidence disclosure.

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