COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - A Columbia man serving a 40-year sentence for the 2001 slaying of a local newspaper sports editor has appealed a Cole County judge's denial of a new trial, claiming the judge made several errors.
Ryan Ferguson, 28, was arrested in 2004 and convicted in 2005 of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery in the beating and strangulation of former Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, who was killed in the newspaper's parking lot.
Ferguson has maintained his innocence from the start, and after two key witnesses -- including a former high school classmate who pleaded guilty -- recanted their testimony, his lawyers argued that there is no evidence linking Ferguson to Heitholt's death.
Ferguson filed a 154-page appeal Wednesday with the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District on the grounds that Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green erred in October when he rejected a request for a new trial, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported .
Green's opinion followed months of consideration of evidence from an April hearing at which co-defendant Charles Erickson and witness Jerry Trump, who had been a janitor at the newspaper, recanted their 2005 trial testimony that placed Ferguson at the scene.
"This case is about actual innocence," Ferguson's petition says. "No direct evidence tied Ryan to the victim's murder. No physical evidence even placed him at the scene. The only circumstantial evidence against Ryan was the exhaustively impeached testimony of Erickson and the identification made by Trump. Both of those witnesses have now admitted that their trial testimony linking Ryan to the murder was false."
Erickson pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He originally testified that he and Ferguson committed the crime together, but now he claims he blacked out on the night of the killing because of heavy alcohol and drug use. He told Green in April there were no signs the next morning that he had been involved in a physical altercation.
The hearing in April stemmed from a February 2011 habeas petition alleging misconduct by Columbia police and former Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane, who is now a trial judge.
Trump told police he saw two men by Heitholt's car the night of the murder but could not provide a detailed description. Trump testified that he later saw newspaper photos of Ferguson and Erickson while in prison, which refreshed his memory. In a sworn affidavit, Trump said he was first shown the suspects' pictures by Crane and told that "it would be helpful" if he could identify the two teens.
The state appeals court rejected a request in 2009 for a new trial on a technicality, but because of evidence of Erickson's recantation, recommended Ferguson and his Chicago attorney, Kathleen Zellner, file a claim of actual innocence in a habeas petition, leading to the February 2011 filing.
"This is not to say that the issues of this case do not give us pause," the Western appellate court wrote in the previous appeal. "The sole evidence tying Ferguson to the crime was the testimony of Erickson and the identification from Trump. There is no physical evidence that ties Ferguson to this murder."
Green ruled that new testimony from Erickson and Trump was not credible enough, in Erickson's case because of various accounts of the murder he had given over the years.
"Erickson's recantation is a textbook example of why the law views recantations with suspicion and caution," Green wrote.
In his ruling, Green noted Erickson had knowledge of unique facts of the murder during trial testimony, which hurt his credibility during the April hearing.
"Judge Green ignored the undisputed fact that this is information the police provided Erickson," the petition says.