Ryan Ferguson is back in appeals court today, fighting to be released from prison for a crime he says he never committed.
Ryan was convicted of the murder of sportswriter Kent Heitholt when he was just 19 years old. Around 2:10 AM on Halloween night in 2001, Kent was leaving the newspaper office where he worked, and was attacked in the parking lot. Kent was struck from behind on his head multiple times and strangled with his own belt.
Four years later, Chuck Erickson and Ryan Ferguson were arrested and charged with Kent’s murder. Chuck, who was seemingly obsessed with the case, knew that he and his friend Ryan had been hanging out at a bar near the scene of the crime on the night Kent had died. Chuck was reportedly big into drugs and alcohol at the time and he had little to no memory of that night. He started reading articles about Kent’s death and even wondered if the police sketch that had been released resembled him. Chuck began to have nightmares about his involvement and admitted as much to his friends. One of his friends called the police and Chuck was taken into custody for questioning. The video below contains snippets of Chuck’s interrogation.
Chuck confessed to the murder, and implicated Ryan as well, but his “confession” was riddled with inconsistencies.
Ryan was also interrogated. He told investigators that he clearly remembered that night and said that he and Chuck had left the bar when it closed, and that he had driven Chuck home. It didn’t matter that Ryan was denying it – Chuck and Ryan were both charged.
Chuck agreed to plead guilty to murder and testify against Ryan, in exchange for a lighter sentence. Ryan’s trial started in 2005, and he was found guilty. In addition to Chuck’s testimony that he and Ryan had committed the murders, the prosecutor also introduced a key witness named Jerry Trump, who was a janitor at the newspaper office where Kent worked. Trump testified that he had seen Ryan in the parking lot on the night of the murder.
Shawna Ornt, a cleaning lady at the newspaper office, also took the stand. She testified that she saw two guys in the parking lot at the time of Kent’s murder. One of them approached her and told her that someone was hurt and to call the police. The guy then “casually” walked away. Although she was never asked if the man was in fact Ryan, it was strongly implied by the prosecutor.
Ryan was found guilty and was sentenced to 40 years behind bars.
Since his conviction, Ryan’s team has fought hard to get it overturned, or at least to get a new trial. He was granted a habeas corpus hearing in April 2012, in which Ryan’s attorneys petitioned for his release. Below is some of the key evidence that was presented:
- Chuck Erickson took the stand and said that he had no memory of that night and that he had lied at Ryan’s trial.
- Jerry Trump, who had literally pointed out Ryan as being the guy he had seen in the parking lot that night, also recanted his testimony. He said that the prosecutor, Kevin Crane, had pressured him to lie.
The judge denied Ryan’s release. Although he stated that he did believe Trump had lied at Ryan’s trial, he didn’t feel as though it would have made a difference with the jury.
Ryan’s attorneys appealed that ruling, and today is a big day in the effort to free him. The Court of Appeals has agreed to hear oral arguments in the case. It’s going to be a rather short hearing, with Ryan’s team having 15 minutes to plead their case, the State getting 15 minutes for their side, and then a 5 minute rebuttal from Ryan’s team.
It’s never easy to get a new trial after you’ve been convicted, but Ryan might have a better chance than most, given the way the case against him has fallen apart over the years. Not only that, but there really is truly NO evidence against him, not even a motive. In the “confession,” Chuck had told investigators that he and Ryan left the bar and decided to rob someone so they could have more money for drinks. Kent was killed after the bar had closed, however, so even if the boys had taken money from him (which they didn’t), they couldn’t have gone back to the bar as Chuck had claimed.
Investigators had also discovered hair, blood and fingerprints at the crime scene, none of which matched either Ryan or Chuck. Two sets of bloody shoe prints leading away from Kent’s car were also found and neither of the shoe sizes matched Ryan or Chuck.
There’s so much more to this case, and you can read more about it in the links below.
At the very least, in my opinion, Ryan deserves a new trial.
UPDATE: 9/25/13 9:26 AM
The decision from the judges could take months. In the meantime, the Justice For Ryan site posted some excerpts from the hearing that are pretty interesting. To me, it sounds as though the judges are pretty concerned about possible Brady violations that occurred in the trial, and that could be huge for Ryan and his quest for freedom.