Missouri – When 29-year-old Ryan Ferguson was expecting to receive a visit from his parents and his lawyer on the eve of Nov. 12, he didn't know that he was going to be released from prison until he looked through a prison window and saw his attorney, Kathleen Zellner holding up a court booklet with the words, "It is OVER" written on the cover.
Ferguson said that it "was a wild day for sure," with a lot going on and a lot of emotions.
The week before, a Missouri state appeals court panel had overturned Ferguson's murder conviction, ruling that the prosecution in the case had withheld exculpatory evidence from Ferguson's defense attorneys when he was on trial in the murder for Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
On Nov. 13, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced that he would not retry or seek further legal action against Ferguson. Later that day, a Boone County judge signed off on the order and after spending nearly all of his 20s in prison for a murder he didn't commit, Ferguson was released from his shackles and walked away a free man.
Ferguson was serving a 40-year sentence for the 2001 slaying of the newspaper editor and had maintained his innocence since day one; he was released from custody around 6 p.m. on Nov. 13.
Ferguson described the hours before the release as was very tense when he had already changed to plain clothes and was told to change back into an orange jump prison jump suit while he was transferred to Boone County Jail, where he would wait on the judge's order.
"I've been so confused, the last couple of hours, they were hard," Ferguson said. "You don't know what's going to happen next, and it's incredibly scary. I was incredibly stressed out."
It was music to Ferguson's ears when the judge's order came through and he was a free man after spending a decade behind bars. Understandably emotional and elated, Ferguson repeatedly thanked his attorneys, parents, friends and supporters for sticking by him through the ordeal.
"I would like to thank my parents…without them I wouldn't have had any hope," Ferguson said. "As you can see, really, to get arrested and charged for a crime you didn't commit, it is incredibly easy and you can lose your life very fast, but to get out it takes an army."
In 2005, Ferguson was convicted of killing Heitholt in the parking lot in front of the Tribune on Halloween night back in 2001. However, none of the evidence collected at the scene including DNA evidence, footprints, or fingerprints matched Ferguson's. Instead of relying on physical evidence or lack thereof, the jury convicted Ferguson on testimony from one of Ferguson's classmates who claimed that he and Ferguson murdered the editor together, and a janitor who identified Ferguson as one of the two men that he saw in the parking lot after the murder. Ferguson's classmate, Charles Erickson was also convicted for the murder and sentenced to 25 years.
In 2009, four years after the 2005 conviction, Erickson met with Ferguson's attorneys where he made a videotaped statement admitting that he was not telling the truth in his testimony of Ferguson. In April of 2012, the court granted Ferguson a new court hearing and both Erickson and the janitor testified that they had both lied in their testimony against Ferguson at trial. The janitor, a convicted sex offender admitted that the police had pressured him to implicate Ferguson and Erickson from looking at a photo.
At that time, Judge Daniel Green didn't believe there was enough reliable evidence to overturn Ferguson's conviction. Ferguson appealed Green's ruling and in November, the Western District appeals court overturned Ferguson's murder conviction.
In reference to Erickson, the man who was the driving force behind Ferguson's arrest and conviction, he said, "I know he was used and manipulated, and I kind of feel sorry for the guy."
"He is not a killer, he does not belong in prison."
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