Murder Convict May Be Freed By Appeals Court After Case Unravels

Ryan Ferguson was sentenced to 40 years in prison for a murder he denies.

ByABC News
September 10, 2013, 2:15 AM

Sept. 10, 2013— -- After nine years behind bars for a murder he says he didn't commit, a Missouri man could be on the brink of freedom as an appellate court hears arguments later today in a case where the state's two key witnesses have recanted their testimony, and there is no DNA linking the convicted killer to the crime scene.

Ryan Ferguson, 28, and his friend Charles Erickson were both charged with robbing and killing newspaper editor Kent Heitholt as he left work at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Mo., on Halloween night 2001.

Erickson accepted a plea deal and testified that he and Ferguson committed the crime together for drinking money. Ferguson, 19 at the time of Heitholt's murder, was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery in 2005 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Ferguson's father, Bill, has been relentlessly fighting in court to free his son since he was arrested for the crime in 2004.

"That was the most shocking experience I have ever had in my entire life," Bill Ferguson said of the conviction in an interview with ABC News.

Ferguson says his son was wrongly convicted because the entire case against him was not based on physical evidence.

"The whole verdict was based on innuendos and a great performance by the prosecutor. But nothing based on evidence," he said.

The hair, blood and fingerprints found at the crime scene didn't match Ryan Ferguson's. In a "48 Hours" interview from earlier this year, Ferguson accused the prosecution of ignoring that there was no DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene.

"Look at the facts, look at all the evidence, and I think if anybody did that, it's obvious that I don't belong here," Ferguson told "48 Hours."

The only evidence linking Ferguson to Heitholt's murder was the testimony of Erickson and Jerry Trump, a janitor who testified that he saw Ferguson at the scene.

Four years after Erickson's testimony, he recanted his story, telling "48 Hours" it was all a lie.

"I don't want to die knowing, you know, this guy is still in prison because of something I said," Erickson said.

Trump also recanted his story in an April 2012 hearing and admitted he lied as well.

In a statement to ABC News, the Missouri Attorney General's office said, "We have no comment on pending cases."

Ferguson's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, told ABC News, "This was a case that was built on the testimony of two eyewitnesses and they both admitted perjury at Ryan Ferguson's trial. So there's no evidence left."

Now, after years of legal back and forth, Ferguson's fate rests in the hands of three appellate judges, who could decide to release him within a few weeks.

Through all the legal wrangling, Bill Ferguson continues to fight for his son and has launched a "Free Ryan Ferguson" campaign that includes a website and a Facebook page that has more than 54,000 "likes."

"We want to expose the justice system for what it really is," Bill Ferguson said. "We are not saying that all judges are bad or all prosecutors are bad or the justice system is bad. But we are saying beware."