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Missouri murder conviction based on dreams is tossed

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For years, the official story about Charles Erickson was that he began to have visions, lost memories that suddenly resurfaced in 2003.

That he’d blacked out and killed a Missouri newspaper editor two years earlier.

That he’d done the killing with a friend.

That they were murderers.

Erickson’s visions turned to talk, and talk turned to testimony -- with Erickson swearing to a jury that he and his friend Ryan Ferguson had bludgeoned and strangled Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt to death in the newspaper’s parking lot in 2001.

There was no physical evidence linking the two 17-year-olds to the scene, and Ferguson swore they were never there. But Erickson took a plea deal for 25 years, and Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to 40 years.

Now the case against Ferguson is unraveling.

On Tuesday, the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals threw out his 2005 conviction, ruling that prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence and that he did not get a fair trial.

“We are aware that by vacating Ferguson's criminal conviction, we have erased any measure of comfort that Mr. Heitholt's family and friends may have drawn from the belief that a person responsible for his senseless and brutal murder has been brought to justice,” the court said in its ruling.

However, the court noted, “Ferguson's conviction is not a verdict worthy of either judicial or public confidence.” Prosecutors have 15 days to decide whether to retry him.

News of the ruling and Ferguson’s possible release flashed across Missouri, where public doubt over the verdict has grown, aided by an aggressive innocence campaign led by his father, Bill Ferguson, 68.

“I get asked about this case more than any other case,” said Jennifer Bukowsky, a Columbia defense attorney who attended the trial as a law student. “A ‘Free Ryan Ferguson’ plane flies over football games. There’s a billboard. There’s a car. It’s a huge deal around here -- huge.... You have two young men, from good families, from Rock Bridge High School. One of them dreams a couple years afterward that he’s involved in this [murder], and there’s no physical evidence tying them to it.”

Ferguson and Erickson were at a bar together shortly before Heitholt got off work, and prosecutors had speculated that the pair intended to rob him for money to keep drinking.

Two custodians for the newspaper saw two young white men by Heitholt’s car. One custodian said she got a good look at one youth; the other, Jerry Trump, initially told police he didn’t see anybody clearly.

Yet it was Trump who would become a star witness and place Ferguson at the scene -- after being incarcerated himself for an unrelated crime. While in prison, Trump told officials that he’d recognized Ferguson and Erickson’s photos in a newspaper his wife had sent him. On the strength of his and Erickson’s testimony, the jury convicted Ferguson.

Years later -- after Erickson and Trump had recanted their testimony and said they’d perjured themselves -- a detail in Trump’s claim unspooled Ferguson’s conviction: Before the 2005 trial, his wife told an investigator from the prosecutor’s office that she’d never sent Trump a newspaper in prison.

The appellate court ruled that the prosecution had violated its duty to turn over all evidence to the defense, which could have used her remarks to cast doubt on Trump’s testimony.

Ferguson’s father said he knew there was hope for his son’s release after speaking with Barbara Trump a year after the trial about whether she'd sent the newspaper.

“When I interviewed her, she said no, she had not done that, and when she said that, I knew the whole case was based on a tissue of lies,” Bill Ferguson told the Los Angeles Times.

Testifying during Ferguson’s appeal in 2012, a tearful Trump asked for forgiveness from the Ferguson family and said then-Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane had pressured him to concoct the story about seeing the photos in the newspaper.

The court identified the prosecutor’s failure to disclose Barbara Trump’s remarks to the defense as a singular reason for vacating the conviction, and alluded to other doubts that had accumulated over the years, including the recanted testimonies and hints of prosecutorial pressure.

“I think the court went extremely far in condemning what had happened,” Ferguson attorney Kathleen Zellner told reporters, adding, “This cannot be American justice, and it’s not going to be, and the court told us that today.”

Crane, who is now a Boone County circuit court judge, declined to respond.  “I don’t think I’m ethically permitted to comment, as difficult as that may seem,” he told The Times.

In a handwritten statement from prison, Ferguson said, “Look forward to sitting at the Thanksgiving table with my family if justice permits.”

The Missouri attorney general’s office said it would review the ruling and consult with the Boone County prosecutor’s office on how to proceed. Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight declined to comment.

“Everyone’s wondering what Dan Knight is going to do with regard to whether he’ll refile,” Bukowsky said. “If he decides not to refile, Ryan Ferguson walks free.”

Ferguson’s father promised to be there when his son gets out.

“He’s just like me,” Bill Ferguson said. “We’re both elated; we’re very excited, yahooing. But this is just the end of one chapter and a start of another.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com

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