JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A Columbia man serving a 40-year prison sentence for the 2001 killing of a newspaper editor will get to present new evidence in court that his attorneys say proves his innocence.
Twenty-six-year-old Ryan Ferguson was convicted in 2005 of second-degree murder in the strangling of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt in the newspaper's parking lot. Colleagues said he was attacked while feeding a stray cat he had befriended.
A jury convicted Ferguson largely on the testimony of former high school friend Charles Erickson, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a 25-year sentence in exchange for his testimony but now says he acted alone.
Also, a former Columbia Tribune janitor says he mistakenly identified Erickson and Ferguson under pressure from then-Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane, now a circuit court judge
Those claims are at the heart of Ferguson's latest appeal. A state appeals court rejected an earlier retrial bid in 2009.
On Thursday, a Cole County judge set a late October hearing to consider the new assertions. The case is being heard in Cole County because Ferguson is imprisoned in Jefferson City. He did not attend the brief proceeding.
"I'm thrilled that we got the hearing," said Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson's lawyer. "There's no question that he will be freed eventually on this evidence. You cannot have a case where your only two witnesses have totally recanted their testimony."
Zellner noted the vast majority of habeas corpus petitions, as the latest appeal is known, are rejected by judges before defendants can present their claims in court.
Ferguson and Erickson were 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.
Jerry Trump, a former Tribune janitor, 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 late last year, 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.
Crane said Tuesday that he cannot comment about Trump's assertion because he might have to testify in October. In a previous Associated Press interview, he defended his handling of the case.
Ferguson's new appeal also raises questions about the possible involvement of Michael Boyd, a one-time Tribune sports writer. The petition suggests Columbia police failed to adequately investigate Boyd as a suspect, even though he provided conflicting statements about when he left work the night of Heitholt's murder and changed his accounts of which of two cars he was driving that night. And he recently told a private investigator working for Ferguson that he returned to the crime scene in the early morning hours after his editor's death -- an account never provided to police.
Boyd, who is now sports editor of the Ste. Genevieve Herald in southeastern Missouri, declined a request for comment. In a February interview with the Tribune, he denied involvement and called Heitholt a friend who "did everything he could to help me out."
The case was featured on Dateline NBC last Friday. Video from the show is below.
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