Man convicted in editor's killing returns to court

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - A Columbia man serving a 40-year sentence for the 2001 murder of a newspaper sports editor is returning to court with new evidence he hopes will prove his innocence, but he won't take the stand in his own defense.

Ryan Ferguson was convicted in 2005 of second-degree murder in the strangling death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Colleagues said Heitholt was attacked while feeding a stray cat in the newspaper's parking lot.

Ferguson has convinced a Cole County judge that he deserves a new hearing based in part on the testimony of Charles Erickson, a former high school friend and co-defendant. Erickson pleaded guilty to Heitholt's slaying and received a lesser sentence, but now says he acted alone.

At a preliminary hearing Wednesday afternoon, Ferguson's attorney said her client won't testify at a five-day evidentiary hearing that starts on Monday before Circuit Judge Daniel Green.

But Chicago lawyer Kathleen Zellner, who has helped gain the freedom of several men convicted of murder in Illinois and will be portrayed by actress Jessica Biel in an upcoming Hollywood adaptation of a case involving a serial killer, plans to subpoena one of Heitholt's former co-workers who has since come under suspicion for his possible involvement.

Former Tribune sports writer Michael Boyd has denied playing any role in Heitholt's death. Three attorneys representing the Missouri attorney general agreed Wednesday to drop their objections to his testimony only after Zellner assured them and the judge that she doesn't plan to pursue the notion of Boyd as a potential suspect. Boyd did not testify at Ferguson's first trial.

"He's going to establish a timeline, including providing an alibi," Zellner said of Boyd. "When you have the last known person known to have been seen with someone who is murdered, they're important to the case."

Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce said the state also plans to call new witnesses who will challenge Erickson's more recent accounts of the night Heitholt died.

Ferguson and Erickson were Rock Bridge High School juniors who sneaked into a nightclub on Halloween night 2001 and left sometime around 1:15 a.m. Ferguson has said he drove Erickson home, then went home himself.

Erickson initially testified that the two acted together to kill Heitholt, who was found dead near the newspaper's downtown Columbia office around 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001. Erickson said he initially repressed his memory of the killing but began to recall details two years later after reading news accounts of the crime and traveling past the crime scene. Some of those details emerged in dreams, he claimed. He called the encounter a botched robbery hatched when they ran out of money and wanted to keep drinking.

Zellner objected Wednesday to the state's desire to introduce new evidence, arguing that "the court should be reviewing the credibility of the trial evidence." Green didn't immediately rule on the request, but suggested the state was likely to prevail.

"It seems your actual innocence claim opens the door to everything," the judge said.

Also expected to testify next week are a former Columbia Tribune janitor who has since said he mistakenly identified Erickson and Ferguson under pressure from then-Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane.

And Crane, now a Boone County judge, will likely be called to the stand as a defense witness for the state. Crane previously testified at a July 2008 post-conviction hearing in Columbia.

The current case is being heard in Cole County because Ferguson is imprisoned in Jefferson City. He did not attend Wednesday's brief proceeding.

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