Bizarre Betrayal: Friend's False Testimony Led to Murder Conviction

Ryan Ferguson has spent years in jail for a crime of which he said he was wrongly accused.
10:25 | 10/11/13

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Transcript for Bizarre Betrayal: Friend's False Testimony Led to Murder Conviction
student. Police follow you home from school asking questions not about something that happened on scam pus campus but a 2-year-old murder you know nothing about. That's what ferguson said happened, and he is serving a 40 year sentence. And it was his friend pointing the finger at him. Tonight, ryan opens up about his epic fight for freedom for our series "crime & punishment" 2-year-old ryan ferguson spend ALMOST ALL OF HIS 20s IN A Maximum security prison. Hey, ryan. Hi. Reporter: For a brutal murder he and now many others insist he didn't commit. It is hard to have much hope at this point in the justice system based on what they have done. Reporter: Today he believes he could be days away from the phone call that could finally free him. These judges don't decide to do what i, I think is obvious, what I think is the right thing. You know I might not ever have a chance to get my life back again. Reporter: As we will find out there is not a shred of physical evidence linking him to the crime and as of last year, not a single witness to implicate him. His incredible saga started nine years ago. I was getting an education. I was moving forward in life. And there was nothing but -- open road. Reporter: A former eagle scout, a popular kid. An extremely close with his family growing up in columbia, missouri. This is one of the times when he was leaving. Giving bill a hug there. Even when he got into his teenage years, he would be with a group of friend and still come over and give us a big hug. Reporter: Leaving class one day he was suddenly pulled over by police. I live a mile away from the school. There were these guys who were tailing me. Reporter: He was stunned to hear they were accusing him of a vicious murder. It occurred two years earlier on halloween night. The victim, beloved sports journalist and father of two, ken heitholt bludgeoned and strangled in the parking lot of columbia daily tribune where he worked. Obviously prove I have nothing to do with that. Questioned me for an hour. I go back. It actually was a relief. Reporter: That relief faded fast. Ferguson was questioned for hours. What the hell is going on? Reporter: And never wavered in his insistence he had nothing to do with the murder. I wasn't there. I didn't do anything. Reporter: Why was he arrested at all? Because hours earlier, in an interrogation room down the hall, this man, a classmate of ryan's told police a very different story. Saying he and ryan were respon responsible for that unsolved crime. Whose idea was it? Ryan's idea. Reporter: They had been out drinking that halloween night in 2001 when the victim was killed. We had a few drinks, hung out. When the bar closed I took ericson home. And I was pretty much the night. Any other halloween. Reporter: Years later ericson who had a history of substance abuse had started telling people including ryan that he had a dream that he had been at the crime scene the night of the murder. He is clearly inebriated, if I know about him having anything to dupe wio with the murder. I don't know anything abut thout that, mann't I kno. I know I took you home. You saying that is strange and freaking me out. Rancheros w Reporter: When he was interrogated. Ericson seemed confused to say the least. Didn't seem to know how the murder occurred. Yeah. But you don't know what it was? Yeah. Reporter: When heap w was brought to the scene where it happened. Does this look familiar to you? I don't remember what happened. Or what the murder weapon had been. Thing it was a shirt. I know it was not a shirt. Bungee cord. We know his belt was ripped off his pants he was strangled with his belt. No. No, I don't remember that at all. Reporter: The detectives got aggressive. Ericson eventually claimed he and ryan ferguson had run out of drinking money and decided to rob someone. You belter start thtter start thinking very clearly. It is you that is on this chopping block. I don't want to hear -- "awful a sudden I think I maybe fabricated all this." Ryan's dad, bill ferguson returned to the crime scene day after day to try to find any evidence to clear his son. Including inconsistencies in ericson's account. One of the most important points has been that charles ericson told some different stories about what happened. His first account was what? His first account was he and ryan allegedly ran this way. Down the alley. The problem its there were bloody footprints found going the other way. Correct. But he didn't know that. The state calls charles ericson. Reporter: At the trial, ericson somehow knew all of these details that alluded him during the interrogation. And was the star witness against ryan ferguson. He was down here. He had a belt and he had his, his foot on his back, the victim's back. And he was pulling up on the belt. Like this. Reporter: That detailed k ed account was supported by the testimony of the janitor, jesse trump. Who identified ferguson as one of two men he saw in the parking lot immediately after the murder. Would you point to the individual or individuals, please? Yes. Ericson and trump were the case against ferguson. Because after all, the dna found at the scene, footprints, and fingerprints, none of it matched ryan ferguson. But it was enough for a jury to convict. We the jury find that defendant, ryan william ferguson guilty of murder in the second degree. Reporter: But four years after that 2005 conviction, something remarkable happened. That seemed to change everything. Ericson who pled guilty in exchange for a 25-year sentence reached out to ryan. Mr. Ericson. Kathleen zellner, an attorney who won many wrongful conviction cases took the case pro bono. Ryan received a letter from charles ericson. Saying charles ericson's wanted ryan's attorneys to scum mecome meet with him. Reporter: With the camera rolling, ericson read a statement admitting he had not been truthful in his testimony against ryan. Things happened much differently than I previously stated. I regret now that I put an innocent man through that. He didn't deserve it. Reporter: Ryan got a new court hearing. In april ericson tested my he learned about ryan ferguson during the trial. Man, I lied to everybody. Would you state your full name for the record. Jerry dwight trump. Reporter: Then the janitor, the only other eyewitness to implicate ryan took the stand and admit hemitted he lied at the trial. A convicted sex offend teer. I would look to hike to have forgiveness from ryan. And his family. Reporter: At that point, do you think to yourself -- we've got to win. He has the got to be released. Absolutely. We were almost delirious. Reporter: It didn't happen. It did not happen. Reporter: The judge did not believe the recent account, and that there wasn't reliable new evidence to overturn the conviction. There is no case in the united states where a person has remained incarcerated when the only two witnesses against them have recanted. It is very frustrating. Because we found so much that helps prove my innocence. I don't know anything else you can say or do at that point. Reporter: Ryan appealed judge green's ruling and finally, last month, during that argument, at least one of the three judges seemed to sympathize with ryan's plight. Is this case some what unique in fact I think, very unique in that mr. Ericson's testimony was vigorously impeached at trial. Reporter: Hearing the appellate court argument are you more hopeful than ever? I am if I am. I really believe they will do the right thing. I believe these judges are going to correct this travesty now that they have the evidence that they needed to correct it. Reporter: In the meantime, ryan has met some one special. I understand you have a girlfriend? I do have a girlfriend. We had a lot of the same thoughts. Beliefs, men taelttalitimentalities. We were fairly local. And meet up and talk and hang out. How often do you get to seep h -- see her? Once a week. It is not ideal. Reporter: Hard as it is, ryan's parents try to stay positive for their son. I come out of there thinking it is so strange. Every time even after all this time, to have to leave without him. It's sad to think that he has LOST ALL OF THIS 20s. And it's hard to imagine how he is going to catch of on all of that. But I have no doubt that he will. Reporter: Seems almost the hardest part for you is in watching your family's pain? Absolutely. They don't if these guys are beating me up every day, and taking my food or whatever. You know? And taking something far worse than food. Reporter: Now nearly ten years later, ryan is finally allowing himself to imagine a life outside the prison bars. When do you expect to be released from prison. Before thanksgiving. Reporter: Out before thanksgiving. I can't believe I have to laugh saying that. Yeah, I do. I do. Pleasure meeting you guys, thank you. I just maintain positivity. Hope that one day I will wake up

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