Thursday, November 14, 2013

Free At Last

I have long been interested in the criminal justice system. My favorite genre of books to read is crime and court dramas. It's no wonder that John Grisham is one of my favorite authors. I also love watching investigative reporting on such shows as 48 Hours and Dateline, along with true crime shows in general like Notorious and The First 48 etc. Whether it be learning about what goes on in the mind of a killer, the police investigation into a crime, or even how they get from a crime scene to a jury verdict in the courtroom, I find it fascinating. A few cases over the years have intrigued me more than others. A lot of times on a show like 48 Hours or Dateline you get a story from beginning to end in an hour episode. Others drag on for years with sporadic updates on new evidence or appeals and so on.

48 Hours has extensively covered the case of a young man by the name of Ryan Ferguson from Columbia, Missouri. The basics - In November 2001, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune named Kent Heitholt was murdered in the parking lot of the newspaper office around 2 am. Nothing of value was stolen from him. Two janitors claimed to have seen two men in the parking lot, one of which offered a description to a police sketch artist. The last person to see him alive was a coworker who worked under him, but he was briefly questioned and never seen as a suspect. Despite there being a lot of blood, hair, and fingerprints at the scene to seem like mounting evidence to solve the crime...there somehow wasn't a suspect.
The night of the murder, Ryan Ferguson was at a bar with his friend Chuck Erickson. In 2004--almost 3 years AFTER the murder--Chuck saw stories about the murder and saw the sketches based off of the description given by one of the janitors from that night. He started to think he had something to do with the murder. He felt one of the sketches resembled himself. Chuck--who had a history of drug and alcohol abuse--started having dreams that he was involved in the murder. After sharing these things with a friend, that friend reported what he had been told to the police, and they ended up bringing Chuck in for questioning. The interrogation video showed Chuck having no clue about details of the murder, and basically being coerced by the detective into confessing. Reading the police reports and watching this is so frustrating, because sometimes it feels like the police and lawyers want so badly for someone to pay for a crime that they are willing to push and push regardless of whether that person is guilty or not. Ultimately, Chuck confessed and implicated Ryan and both were charged with murder. Ryan has always steadfastly maintained his innocence and after all these years his story has never wavered. Not once. Of course, Chuck agreed to a plea deal to frame Ryan in exchange for a lesser sentence for himself.

So a guy has weird and inconsistent dreams that convinces him he is a killer, and he takes his friend down with him. There is NO DNA evidence that connected either one of them to the crime, and Ryan himself had never been in trouble for anything before. One of the janitors that was there that night initially claimed that he could not identify anyone at the scene, yet all of a sudden in court was able to identify and point directly at Ryan. After 5 days the jury returned a verdict of guilty to robbery and second degree murder, and Ryan was sentenced to 40 years in prison. FORTY YEARS! No DNA, no evidence, no motive. Just one messed up druggie's claim of dreams, and a 19 year old is sentenced to 40 years in prison. That is a terrifying reality, which could easily happen to any of us. Click HERE to read some facts of the crime, murder scene and investigation. Its astounding to me this kid was convicted.

Last year Chuck Erickson admitted he lied under oath at Ryan's trial. And in an even bigger twist, the janitor who couldn't--and then could--identify Ryan admitted he also lied at the trial. He claims the prosecutor encouraged him to place Ryan at the scene of the crime, and intimidated him into changing his story.

Last week an appeals court threw out Ryan's conviction, and on Tuesday morning after 9 years and 8 months, Ryan Ferguson walked out of prison and is finally a free man. He is now 29 years old. 10 years he sat in a prison for a crime he didn't commit. I cannot imagine what that could feel like. Being taken from your life, locked away in a cold cell, living with legit murderers and other horrific criminals...yet all the while knowing you were innocent. Thank God justice was served for him. I won't bore you to death with every detail of the crime and his arrest and everything else that has happened. If you are interested, I encourage you to go to THIS website where you can read all about it.

There is a sadness for the friends and family of Kent Heitholt who now are left with so many unanswered questions. Who killed Kent? Will that person ever be found? So many questions as to why fingerprints, shoe prints, DNA, and hair somehow never led to a suspect. Now that Ryan has his life back and his family has closure, I hope and pray Kent Heitholt's family will get the same some day.

Today though, Ryan is free...and a young man who had his entire 20's taken from him will try to move on and build the life he wasn't able to for the last 10 years.

Makes you wonder how many people are sitting in prisons tonight who are innocent. People who are victims of circumstance and lies. 

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