Today the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District vacated Ryan Ferguson’s 2005 murder conviction. The court granted his habeas corpus petition, finding that the state had committed a Brady violation by withholding material evidence from Ferguson’s lawyers in his original trial.
The evidence withheld was an interview the prosecution had with Barbara Trump, the wife of Tribune janitor Jerry Trump who testified as an eyewitness against Ferguson in 2005. Trump saw two men at the scene of Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt’s murder. His initial testimony was that he recognized Ferguson as one of those men when he saw his photo in a newspaper his wife sent him while he was in jail for an unrelated reason. His wife told prosecutors that she did not remember sending him a newspaper. Trump later recanted his testimony, as did Chuck Erickson, they key witness. Erickson was a high school friend of Ferguson’s who came forward two years after the murder and told police he had dreamed that he was involved. He plead guilty and testified that he and Ferguson attacked Heitholt together on Halloween night 2001. He later recanted, saying he committed the murder alone but that he didn’t remember any of it.
Ferguson has maintained his innocence all along. He has been in prison for eight years despite the fact that his case was riddled with errors, inconsistencies and a total lack of physical evidence. Years of appeals attempts and various lawyers have gotten him nowhere, until now. The state has 15 days to either declare its intent to retry Ferguson or release him.
I first covered this story when working as a public safety reporter for the Columbia Missourian in 2008. Since then, I’ve followed the developments and have written occasional blog posts about Ferguson’s plight. I’ve been convinced of his innocence and extremely frustrated with the legal system. Today’s decision is a sudden glimmer of sanity and hope for justice after so many disappointments. I can only imagine how Ferguson and his family feel. He has lost almost all of his 20s in prison. Even if he is released, his life will never be the same. The state cannot give back what it has taken from him. But at least it can finally stop the madness. I hope with all my heart they don’t decide to retry him. It’s enough already.
I want to write more, but I have a grouchy 5-month-old who’s due for a nap. Besides, the real working journalists are doing a fine job of covering it. Check out this coverage from the Missourian and then give Ryan Ferguson a Google search if you’d like to read more perspectives on the developing story.