For the first time in almost 10 years, Ryan Ferguson can start imagining a life outside of prison walls.
A Missouri state appeals court panel today overturned the murder conviction of the 28-year-old man, who has maintained his innocence while serving a 40-year sentence in a maximum security prison for the 2001 slaying of a newspaper editor.
The appeals court ruled that the prosecution withheld evidence from Ferguson's defense attorneys that could have helped his case while he was on trial for the brutal murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
"Under the facts and circumstances of this case, we conclude that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial. His verdict is not worthy of confidence," Western District appeals court Judge Cynthia Martin wrote in the 3-0 decision.
The state has 15 days to decide whether to retry Ferguson for the crime.
When "Nightline" spoke to Ferguson in a jailhouse interview last month, he had hoped to be released before Thanksgiving.
"I'm going be ready for whatever life throws at me because I've been preparing for so long," Ferguson said at the time. "So you know I just … maintain positivity and hope that one day I'll wake up and I'll get a good phone call."
Ferguson's parents were thrilled to learn that their son's conviction was overturned. "It almost seems like a dream," his mother, Leslie, said. "I keep pinching myself hoping that I'm not dreaming."
His father, Bill, was angry that it had taken so long.
"I think it's a phenomenon that happens all across this country. It's a combination of the prosecutor and the police and the court system all working together or not working together. Allowed this travesty to take place," he said. "The charges had no merit initially. And to evolve to where we got to here and go through a couple of appeals to be turned down and then finally after nine and a half years finally get Ryan's sentence vacated is just way too long. There's plenty of blame and responsibility to go around."
Ferguson's saga started 10 years ago when he was in college. A former Eagle Scout growing up in Columbia, Mo., he was a popular kid and extremely close with his family.
But one day, in 2003, when Ferguson was leaving class, police pulled him over and accused him of viciously murdering Heitholt on Halloween night 2001.
Police questioned Ferguson for hours and he never wavered in his insistence that he had nothing to do with the murder. But at the same time, a man named Charles Erickson, one of Ferguson's classmates, was in another interrogation room down the hall, telling police that he and Ferguson had committed the crime and that it had been Ferguson's idea. Erickson said the pair had been out together on that Halloween night when Heitholt was killed.
"We had a few drinks, hung out and then when the bar closed, you know, I took Erickson home and that was pretty much the night, like any other Halloween," Ferguson is heard telling police on interrogation tapes.
Erickson, who had a history of substance abuse, had started telling people before Ferguson was a suspect that he had dreamt he had been at the crime scene the night of the murder. Ferguson said one night, Erickson showed up inebriated at a friend's house while Ferguson was there and started talking about it.
"He starts asking me if I know about him having anything to do with the murder of Kent Heitholt," Ferguson recalled. "And I'm looking at him, I'm like, 'I don't know anything about that man, I know I took you home that night but you even saying that is incredibly strange and it's kind of freaking me out,' so, you know, pretty much, 'get away from me.'"
When Erickson was interrogated by police in 2004, the interrogation tapes showed that he seemed confused and didn't seem to know how the murder occurred or even the kind of murder weapon used.
"I think it was a shirt or something," Erickson is heard saying on police interrogation tapes when he went with police to the crime scene.
"I know it wasn't a shirt," an officer said.
"Maybe a bungee cord?" Erickson replied.
"Well, we know for a fact that his belt was ripped off of his pants and he was strangled with his belt," an officer said. "Does that ring a bell?"