Conviction Overturned for Mo. Man Who Spent Almost a Decade in Prison for Murder

PHOTO: Ryan Ferguson has spent almost a decade in a maximum security prison for a brutal murder he, and many others, insist he didn’t commit.PlayABC News
WATCH Bizarre Betrayal: Friend's False Testimony Led to Murder Conviction

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?"

When Erickson replied, "No," an officer then asked, "you didn't put anything in your hand then?"

"No," Erickson said. "I don't remember that at all."

But detectives became aggressive during their interrogation and Erickson eventually claimed he and Ferguson had run out of drinking money and decided to rob someone.

At the seven-week-long trial in 2005, Erickson somehow knew all the details that had eluded him during the interrogation and was the star witness against Ryan Ferguson.

"He was down here and he had a belt, and he had his foot on his back on the victim's back and he was pulling up on the belt," Erickson testified in court.

His detailed account was supported by the testimony of a janitor named Jerry Trump, who identified Ferguson as one of the two men he saw in the parking lot immediately after the murder.

Erickson and Trump's testimony held up the case against Ferguson. None of the DNA collected at the scene -- the footprints and fingerprints -- matched Ryan Ferguson's, but the testimony was enough for the jury to convict him. Erickson was also convicted and sentenced to 25 years.

"It reminded me of playing freshman football and getting the breath knocked out of me," Bill Ferguson said. "It was surreal, I just couldn't believe it."

Four years after that 2005 conviction, Ferguson seemingly got a break. Two weeks after Kathleen Zellner, an attorney who has won many wrongful conviction cases, agreed to take on Ferguson's case pro-bono, Ferguson received a letter in prison from Erickson, asking for Ferguson's attorneys to meet with him.

With Zellner's camera rolling, Erickson read a statement admitting he had not been truthful in his testimony against Ferguson.

"Things happened much differently than I had previously stated, I could not accept in my conscience mind that I was the sole perpetrator," Erickson said on Zellner's tape. "I regret now that I put an innocent man through that. He didn't deserve it."

Ferguson got a new court hearing in April 2012, and Erickson testified that he had lied about Ferguson's involvement in the murder during his initial trial. Then Trump, the janitor, took the stand and admitted that he too had lied at the trial. A convicted sex offender, Trump now claimed that police pressured him to implicate Ferguson and Erickson from looking at a photo.

"He said, 'It would be very helpful if you can help us with this ... by identifying them.'" Trump testified in 2012. "I felt very intimidated, because the only thing I wanted to do, at that point, was to do the right thing. I'd been in enough trouble."

Ryan Ferguson thought his nightmare was over, but Judge Daniel Green didn't believe Erickson's most recent account and found that there wasn't enough reliable new evidence to overturn his conviction.

Ferguson appealed Green's ruling. In September, his lawyers made arguments in Western District appeals court, rebutting his conviction.

Today, that court overturned Ferguson's murder conviction, on the grounds that the prosecution withheld from the defense a phone conversation that an investigator in the Boone County prosecutor's office conducted with Trump's wife, Barbara Trump, "which impeached Jerry Trump's explanation for his ability to identify Ferguson," Judge Martin wrote.

"The undisclosed evidence renders Ferguson's verdict not worthy of confidence," she said.

After a decade of waiting, it seems that Ferguson can finally hope to clear his name.