August 28, 2014

Ferguson seeks freedom through recanted testomony in high-profile murder case (AUDIO)

Ryan Ferguson was a high school student in Columbia when he supposedly killed a newspaper Sports Editor a decade ago. Now a Cole County judge is hearing evidence that his lawyer hopes will exonerate him. The details surrounding the early morning murder of Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt involve a confession stemming from repressed memories and bad dreams and a key witness who now says he lied when he positively identified the two serving time for the killing.

Ryan Ferguson enters a Cole County Circuit courtroom. On Monday an evidentiary hearing began to consider a new trial for Ferguson in the 2001 murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Photo by August Kryger

Chicago Attorney Kathleen says Charles (Chuck) Erickson told police Ferguson helped him kill Heitholt. He now says he acted alone, and janitor Jerry Trump, who placed Ferguson at the crime scene, now says he was coerced to say that in court.

Trump testified in 2004 that he saw Erickson and Ferguson at the crime scene, but now says he felt pressured to make that testimony, and that he really couldn’t make a positive I.D. on the suspects.

He says he was serving time in prison for sex crimes when the murder case broke, and he was afraid his parole would be revoked if he didn’t say what the prosecutor wanted him to in court. He likened then Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane — now a judge — to a cheerleader pushing him to help the prosecution convict the two men.

A private detective hired by Zellner testified in court Monday that making a positive identification in a dimly lit parking lot from 75 feet away would be nearly impossible.

Zellner will also call forward a witness who says she saw Ferguson and Erickson at a Columbia night club before the murder … she says the two men left the club in Ferguson’s car. Kimberly Bennett is a nursing student who did not testify in the original trial.

Ferguson talks to his attorney, Kathleen Zellner, in courtroom. Photo by August Kryger

Ferguson sat next to Zellner in the courtroom, occasionally looking at his family and smiling, but otherwise was emotionless as he listened to the details of the case … again … unfold. He jotted down notes on a yellow legal pad in front of him.

Ferguson is serving a 40 year sentence for the crime; Erickson is serving 25.

The prosecution in this hearing, assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce, says Erickson is having to fight in prison because he’s been labeled a snitch, and that’s why he’s recanting his testimony. He says Erickson has been charged with assault twice since being incarcerated, lengthening his sentence.

The case has garnered national attention since being picked up by Dateline NBC, which has a crew in the courtroom to follow up on the story.

AUDIO: Jessica Machetta reports (1:43)