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Murder Conviction Vacated after 9 Years

11-Nov-2013

Four years after the 2001 murder of a newspaper editor on Halloween night, Ryan Ferguson was accused of being an accomplice to the crime by a "friend" who told police in 2004 that the pair had beaten Kent Heitholt and left him to die. Despite lack of physical evidence connecting him to the crime, Ferguson was convicted based on the testimony of Chuck Erickson, who pleaded guilty to robbery and murder, and a night custodian who said identified Ferguson at the scene.

Ferguson, who continued to profess his innocence, was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Now, after having served 9 years, Ferguson may finally have the chance to be free after an appeals court overturned his conviction, saying the young man did not receive a fair trial.

According to Judge Cynthia Martin of the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District, "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." The court found that material evidence was withheld during Ferguson's trial that could have changed the outcome of the case.

Ferguson's appeal lawyer argued that the prosecution withheld the testimony of Barbara Trump, the wife of the custodian who claimed to have seen Ferguson at the murder scene. The janitor told investigators that he had scene two men near the body of the slain newspaper editor, and he identified them as Erickson and Ferguson from post-arrest photos of the two young men. However, Barbara Trump told investigators that her husband could not have seen two men at the murder scene because he himself was incarcerated following a parole violation at the time of the murder. She told prosecutors that she sent her husband a newspaper clipping of the story while he was in prison. However, this evidence, which impeached Trump's "eyewitness" testimony, was never disclosed to the defense nor to jurors, in violation of a precedent set by Brady v. Maryland, which requires both prosecution and defense to share all evidence and information in a criminal case.

In 2012, both Trump and Erickson admitted they lied in their testimony implicating Ferguson in the murder. However, despite their recanted testimonies, an appeals court last year upheld Ferguson's conviction.

Now that Ryan Ferguson's conviction has been vacated, the district attorney's office must decide whether or not to refile charges in the case. Without physical evidence and with no witness testimony to place Ferguson at the scene or to implicate him in Heitholt's murder, it seems unlikely that the D.A.'s office would file charges; however, stranger things have happened. If prosecutors re-file charges, Ferguson's attorney will request her client's release on bond pending the new trial. If prosecutors do not re-file robbery and murder charges against Ferguson, the 29-year-old who has spent nearly a third of his life in prison for a crime he says he did not commit will finally go free.

A criminal conviction is seldom the end of the story. The appeals process is a right of those convicted of crimes in an effort to combat and remedy miscarriages of justice in the criminal court system. Read more about Oklahoma appeals on our website, or click here to schedule a free consultation with an experienced appellate lawyer.



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