Ryan Ferguson was released Tuesday, after spending almost a decade in prison for a murder he did not commit. Like almost every other convicted criminal, Ferguson had been claiming they had the wrong guy. Only this time, the courts agreed.
On November 1, 2001, Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt was found beaten and strangled in his newspaper’s parking lot around 2:30 a.m. For two years, the case remained cold until Ferguson’s high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, saw the story in the paper and came forward. Erickson told the police that he had been having dreams that he and Ferguson had killed the man after a night of drinking at a local bar. Police coerced Erickson into incriminating himself and Ferguson. In 2005, Erickson received 25 years in prison, with a review after 13 years. Ferguson received 40 years.
At first, his hope was just to get a new trial. Last week, an appeals court threw out Ferguson’s 2005 conviction after almost a decade of prison time. It is extremely rare to win an appeals case, especially when it comes to murder.
A week later, while Ferguson waited to hear about a possible new trial, Attorney General Chris Koster announced his office would not re-try the 29-year-old. Later that same day, Ferguson was released from prison as a free man.
Ferguson says that a lot of credit for the victory should be attributed to the work done by the 48 Hours crew. 48 Hours had been covering the case since 2005, when they heard about the dream testimony. The story began to attract national media attention, especially in recent years. Without the coverage from 48 hours, one has to wonder if anyone would have ever known about Ryan Ferguson.
Ferguson’s biggest concern now is what to do with his life. At the time of the murder, Ferguson was only 17 and now has missed all of his 20s. He says he is looking forward to finding himself on the outside and uncovering his passions. He hopes to use his experiences, through writing and speaking, to find justice for others who have been wrongfully accused.
There is still much speculation as to what will happen to Chuck Erickson, the accuser. Ferguson is not concerned with that right now. He is just truly excited to be a free man and absolved of the title of “convicted murderer.” Now, he can discover who Ryan Ferguson is.