How an online army helped free Ryan Ferguson

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Compared with hundreds of other convicts agitating for a new trial or outright release, Ryan Ferguson had a powerful tool few others had at their disposal: an online army.

As his case gained notoriety through television specials on NBC's Dateline, CBS News' 48 Hours and other crime-focused newscasts across the country, so too did Ferguson's online following grow; amplifying his message and putting pressure on a system loathe to self-correct.

By Wednesday night, a Change.org petition calling for Ferguson's release had more than 260,000 signatures. A Facebook page created for the same purpose had 82,000 likes and a robust discussion and a crowd-funding campaign raised over $30,000 to help Ferguson start his new life.

"To get arrested and to get charged with a crime you didn't commit is incredibly easy. You can lose your life really fast but to get out of prison, it takes an army, as you can see," Ferguson said on Wednesday. "It's been amazing seeing the support and it's been really helpful to my family."

To be sure, Ferguson had other advantages few other inmates have: including a prominent lawyer and a supportive family, but his family's mastery of the media swarm around the case clearly helped drive the "Free Ryan" effort forward.

Dennis Fritz might know better than any man alive what Ferguson is going through now that he's a free man. Fritz spent 12 years in an Oklahoma prison for a murder DNA evidence ultimately proved he did not commit.  He applauded Ferguson's family's mastery of the media around the case, and urged Ferguson to keep talking – for his own good.

"The more media you do, the more you talk about it, the less post-traumatic stuff you have to deal with," Fritz said in an interview Wednesday. "You get rid of it."

Fritz wrote a book about his experience – something Ferguson said he started doing during his time in prison – and predicted more than a few bumps ahead for Ferguson as he adjusts to life in a different decade than the one he left behind.

"Going through something like this when you're totally innocent is the worst feeling," Fritz said. "It's really one of the worst things anybody can ever go through."

An official from the Midwest Innocence Project said the organization has 500 inmates requesting their help in Missouri alone. The group counts five exonerations in Missouri this year, including Ferguson – something the 29-year-old alluded to on Tuesday night, calling for more oversight into other disputed cases.

"It's just amazing to be here knowing that other people are in my situation and don't have the support and the help that I've had," Ferguson said. "This is not an anomaly; we need to look at other cases."

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