The story of Ryan Ferguson: wrongly convicted of murder, can’t get released from prison

Stacy Rush headshot

Stacy Rush is a contributor to The Brenner Brief.
Twitter: @discoveringme40

In politics, we often discuss the term “judicial activism” or its antonym, “judicial restraint,” in civil cases where one party deems a judge’s decision as an attempt to force a social or political agenda versus following the letter of the law. We spend far less time on judicial activism, or the lack thereof, within the criminal justice system which often allows limited options for the men and women wrongfully convicted.

The U.S. criminal justice system, while arguably the best in the world, provides an innocent person with scant options of winning an appeal once convicted by a jury of their peers.  The Truth in Justice report, Complicity of Judges in the Generation of Wrongful Convictions, concludes “a person’s innocence is discounted by judges (upon appeal) because it is not a constitutional issue.” Going on to say, “the Constitution only guarantees that procedural formalities will be followed, it does not guarantee the outcomes of those procedures will be accurate or fair.”

Truth in Justice arrives at their conclusion, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Herrera v. Collins, that, “a claim of actual innocence is not in not itself a Constitutional claim.” Thus, appellate courts typically defer to the lower court decisions rarely  overturning convictions regardless of the claim of innocence.

According to the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, approximately 3-5 percent of the prison population is innocent of the crime for which they are incarcerated. The leading cause of wrongful conviction: eyewitness misidentification.

Ryan Ferguson is one of the 72 percent wrongfully convicted based on false testimony and false eyewitness identification.

I first became aware of Ryan Ferguson’s case in 2006 through the show 48 Hours, and the episode dedicated to his trial and subsequent conviction for the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt. Ferguson, who had never been in trouble before being accused of murder, had no connection to the victim and was arrested and convicted based on the testimony of the high school friend he was with the night of the murder along with the eyewitness testimony of Jerry Trump.

In 2001, Ferguson and Chuck Erickson were indeed together. They snuck into a bar on Halloween night located within blocks of the murder scene. According to witnesses and to Ferguson’s testimony, the pair left the bar at around 1:15 a.m. Ferguson drove Erickson to his house and then drove straight home to his. From the outset of the murder accusation, Ferguson never waivers from his version of events.

Ryan Ferguson, left, and his accuser, Charles Erickson (CBS News/48 Hours)

Ryan Ferguson, left, and his accuser, Charles Erickson (Credit: CBS News/48 Hours)

Years after the 2001 Halloween night Ferguson and Erickson spent together, Ferguson was away at college while a troubled Erickson began confiding to friends he had “dreams” about the Heitholt murder. After Erickson’s friends reported their conversations to the police, he was brought in and questioned.

Erickson’s interrogation was taped, and in it we see a troubled young man being fed details about a crime of which he is unaware. He understood two people were involved in Heitholt’s murder, so in exchange for a 25 year sentence he identified the person he was with on that night, Ryan Ferguson.

In addition to Chuck Erickson’s testimony, Jerry Trump, a janitor from Heitholt’s office, identifies Ferguson as the person he saw the night of the murder..  However, what does not put Ferguson, or for that matter Erickson, at the crime scene is the myriad of blood, DNA and fingerprints recovered.

In November 2012,  Dateline produced an update of Ferguson’s case coinciding with the Habeas Corpus petition filed on his behalf. The complaint alleges misconduct by Columbia police and former Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane, as well as recantations of trial testimony from the two key witnesses — Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump..

Given that eye-witness testimony is the only evidence linking Ferguson to the murder, a happy ending to this otherwise tragic miscarriage of justice was expected. He would be reunited with his family who tirelessly worked for his freedom. Instead, those watching the update were deeply saddened when Judge Green denied Ryan Ferguson’s Habeas petition.

Thankfully, Judge Green’s misguided decision placing the security of justice colleagues over Ferguson’s innocence is not the last word for him. In January 2013, his attorney appealed Judge Green’s decision to the Western District Appellate court. The Ferguson family expects a decision during the summer of 2013, nine years after Ferguson’s wrongful conviction.

Ryan Ferguson and his family continue displaying faith and grace beyond which many can comprehend. When I read an update on Ferguson’s case, I cannot help but to think of my son and what I would do if this were happening to him. The reality is, this happens all too often in the U.S., and could happen to any one of its citizens.

Do not misunderstand, the rule of law and Constitution on which our country is founded is the reason the U.S. remains the great beacon of hope and strongest government in the world.  I have an immense respect for our legal system, and understand, most times, the system gets it right.

However, in Ferguson’s case, and in the case of countless others fighting for their freedom, our justice system got it wrong.

For more information on Ryan Ferguson’s case, please visit:

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  1. richardbaris says:

    And here is where my libertarian tendencies kick in. The Republican party is supposed to be the party of law and order but, we have given entirely too much power to the state who in turn, puts it in the hands of police officers like this. Unfortunately, too often citizens ignore this injustice in our society until, it happens to them. There is too little recourse for innocent people who are wrongly convicted. I am not familiar enough with this case to say one way or the other, but it happens way too frequent. Sad, we only get one life. It is a shame some spend it in a cage when they don’t belong there in the first place. Time that you will never get back. Period.

    • Thanks Rick for your comments
      While I do not wish to hamstring the police in investigating crime, the video of a teenager asked details, getting them wrong and then feeding him crime details is outrageous
      Additional details not included in the story:
      Trump was pressured to ID ferguson, the prosecutor saying we have the right guys, just need someone to point them out. Trump tearfully recanting his testimony at Ryan’s last hearing said he was doing so to gain Ryan’s forgiveness for lying under oath, understanding he could face perjury charges.
      The other eye witness who said ferguson was not the person she saw at the scene was never called to testify to testify, she did not fit the narrative.
      Jurors from the original trial are advocating for Ryan’s freedom today, they believe he is innocent.
      I do not have the answers to solving the issues raised by this, bringing awareness to others who have not been impacted by such a travesty to begin the discussion is a starting point.

  2. brettluc says:

    Our system of justice if fallible, just like every human system. What changes do you recommend to make it better? There are not “countless others” out there fighting for their freedom, there are a handful who are falsely convicted – 3-5% according to you – yet most would agree this is not OK, but please offer a workable solution. I am not libertarian, but richardbaris is correct, any time the government is unchecked by the citizenry, there will be a problem.

    • justicedenyd says:

      With all due respect, just a “handful” of persons falsely convicted (3-5%) is actually a very large number when you consider the millions of convictions per year in the U.S.! Per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “at year end 2001, more than 5.6 million U.S. adult residents, or about 1 in 37 U.S. adults, had served time in state or federal prison. In 2004, an estimated 1,079,000 adults were convicted of a felony in state courts nationwide.” So if you consider how many persons comprise 3-5% of those numbers…DO THE MATH…that is a HUGE number of people who are likely wrongfully convicted! It could literally happen to anyone.

    • Thanks for your comment Brett
      I agree w the next post that 3-5% is not a small number, especially when the 3-5% is someone you know/love.
      I do not have the solution for the issues raised and am not interested in changing the justice system that works very well in a majority of cases. But seems in a case where an overwhelming amount of evidence points to a persons innocence some alternative should be available.
      I’d also like to acknowledge there is a price of the ferguson case for the heitholt family who likely had some sense of closure when Erickson and ferguson were convicted. My prayers go out to them for what is as difficult a journey given their loss.

  3. This reminds me of inmates who have been convicted of rape being refused DNA tests that may prove their innonsence or guilt. Very troubling, especially when the technology is readily available.

  4. brettluc says:

    Any time someone begins acomment with the phrase “all due respect” that means with no respect whatsoever. Open your brain to the reality that 3-5%, regardless of the actual number, is not a huge problem, a problem, but not huge. It is a human proclivity to commit error. I’m not sure where people get the idea that the justice system is infallible, but open your eyes, it is not. It is the price free citizens pay for the liberty they enjoy. It is certainly a better system than any other ever devised. It can be improved, but simply complaining about problems without offering solutions is not productive. I am convinced that improvements to the justice system can and will be made when citizens hold elected representatives responsible for the laws passed and the judges appointed. We get what we vote for!

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