Ryan Ferguson left prison a free man Tuesday, greeted by cheers from supporters and lingering questions related to one of Missouri’s highest-profile murder cases.
He and a friend were convicted of killing a Columbia, Mo., newspaper editor and sentenced to prison. Ferguson, now 29, had insisted on his innocence. And last week, an appellate court voided his conviction.
“I can get back to living my life, though I don’t know yet how that will feel,” Ferguson told a cheering audience in Columbia, his hometown, after his release.
Ferguson had been implicated in the 2001 slaying by a friend, Charles Erickson, who said he’d had had dreamlike visions that the pair, then both 17, had committed the murder after a night of drinking.
Erickson, in exchange for a lighter prison sentence, testified against Ferguson, who was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years.
A Missouri appeals court found that prosecutors had failed to turn over important evidence to the defense before Ferguson’s 2005 trial. The jurists threw out his conviction and presented the state with an ultimatum: Charge Ferguson again, or set him free.
On Tuesday, Missouri Atty. Gen. Chris Koster conceded and said he would not file new charges. In a one-sentence statement, Koster said he had reviewed what remained of the evidence and decided not to try to mount another trial against Ferguson “at this time.”
There are no more witnesses to say that Ferguson had murdered Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt with Erickson. The prosecution’s two key witnesses, including Erickson, have recanted.
There was no physical evidence to prove that Ferguson and Erickson were even in the newspaper’s parking lot.
Ferguson has not been declared innocent, however; he is simply free.
But free was good enough for the Ferguson family, and certainly good enough for his attorney, Kathleen Zellner, who broke the news to Ferguson by holding a handwritten note reading "IT IS OVER” up to a prison window.
Hours of confusion ensued. Ferguson was not immediately released from state prison, but transferred to the Boone County Jail while his family and a mob of reporters trailed him around central Missouri, awaiting a judge’s final sign-off.
“It was amazing right to the end what a struggle this was,” Zellner told reporters.
Columbia defense attorney Jennifer Bukowsky, who was providing some legal aid for Ferguson’s release, was at the Boone County Jail when the shackles on Ferguson’s wrists and legs were removed.
“It was surreal to watch them unchain him for the final time,” Bukowsky told the Los Angeles Times. “Never give up -- that’s the lesson.”
But she also noted the significance of Ferguson’s newfound freedom.
“The Columbia Police Department needs to reopen the case, run the DNA,” Bukowsky said. “It’s an unsolved murder. They need to reopen the case and solve the crime.”
Ferguson, appearing to wild cheers and whistles at a news conference in Columbia, said Erickson was also innocent even though he had pleaded guilty.
“The guy’s a lot of things, but [the] thing he is, more than anything else, is innocent,” Ferguson said.
“He does not belong in prison.… He was used and manipulated, and I kind of feel sorry for the guy,” Ferguson told reporters, alluding to his attorneys’ arguments that officials had manipulated Erickson to produce a case against Ferguson. “He’s been victimized. He’s an innocent man in prison.… He’s not a killer.”
Ferguson stayed upbeat, profusely thanking his supporters, his lawyers, his family, the state’s appellate judges and the attorney general, among others. But he alluded to the dark time he’d spent behind bars, trying to read and learn, because he “didn’t want to get out and be a 19-year-old kid” in his own mind.
“I don’t know if I can characterize a decade,” Ferguson told reporters, saying that he’d often lost faith in the system and that other inmates had also been wrongfully convicted. “Depression is good word for it. It’s a struggle, pure and simple.”
He added, “I’m actually happier for my parents right now than I am for me, because they’ve had to deal with so much.”
So what next? “I kind of want some Dairy Queen,” Ferguson said.