Missouri Court of Appeals reverses murder conviction for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense

November 5, 2013

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Good afternoon:

Big news out of Missouri this morning: The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed Ryan Ferguson’s conviction for the 2001 murder of sports editor Kent Heitholt of the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, MO.

Basis for the ruling: Prosecutorial misconduct for withholding material exculpatory evidence from the defense.

48 Hours covered this case.

Kent Heitholt, the sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, was beaten and strangled to death with his belt in a parking lot outside the building where he worked. Two janitors discovered his body and called the police. They told the police that they first noticed two men in their twenties standing next to Heitholt’s car and then saw Heitholt’s body on the ground nearby. Neither of them were able to provide police with a detailed description of either of the two men.

One witness worked with a sketch artist, however, who eventually produced some sketches of the two suspects.

Ryan Ferguson and his friend Chuck Erickson were drinking in a nearby bar. Ferguson was the driver and late that night he dropped Erickson off at Erickson’s house and then he drove home and went to bed

When Erickson got up the next day, he could not remember much about the events of the previous evening. After reading about Heitholt’s murder, he began to wonder if maybe he might have been one of the two young men reportedly seen by the two janitors.

Several years later after looking at the sketches in the news, he really began to worry about whether he might have been involved and he expressed his concern to several friends, including Ferguson.

Ferguson laughed at him and assured him that he had an intact memory of that evening and they had nothing to do with Heitholt’s death.

One of Erickson’s friends called the police and they decided to subject him to a custodial interrogation. Unfortunately, nothing he said matched any of the evidence at the crime scene, but instead of letting him go, they began to provide him with snippets of information that only the killers would know. In this way, they eventually succeeded in getting him to sign a confession. He named his friend Ryan Ferguson as his accomplice.

Ferguson denied committing the crime and police did not find any evidence at the crime scene implicating either of them.

Erickson ended up pleading guilty and testified against Ferguson in exchange for a reduced sentence.

The other janitor, who did not participate in the sketch effort because he told police that he could not recall anything about the two young men in the parking lot, suddenly contacted the prosecutor just before trial and announced that he had recovered his memory and could positively identify Erickson and Ferguson as the two young men he saw.

When asked to explain the miraculous recovery, which happened when he was in prison serving a sentence on an unrelated matter, he said his wife sent him a package wrapped in newspaper. As luck would have it, a photograph of Erickson just happened to be the first thing he saw when he glanced at the newspaper. Voila! He instantly recognized Erickson and then Ferguson.

The jury found Ferguson guilty.

The janitor and Erickson subsequently recanted their trial testimony.

The newspaper-jogged-my-memory was a false story and, not surprisingly, the wife had no recollection of sending it to him.

The defense subsequently discovered that the prosecutor who tried the case had interviewed the janitor in prison just before the janitor contacted police and told them about the miraculous recovery of his memory.

The prosecutor did not take any notes and did not inform the defense about that meeting. He also did not disclose to the defense that the janitor’s wife did not recall sending a newspaper to her husband.

The prosecution did not and that the prosecutor had met with the janitor just before he recovered his memory.

The Court of Appeals was not the least bit amused, noting that the only evidence implicating Ferguson was two in-court identifications of extremely suspicious provenance that had subsequently been recanted.

The Court of Appeals held:

We conclude that Ferguson has established the gateway of cause and prejudice,
permitting review of his procedurally defaulted claim that the State violated Brady v.
Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) by withholding material, favorable evidence of an
interview with Barbara Trump, the wife of Jerry Trump, one of the State’s key witnesses
at trial. The undisclosed evidence was favorable because it impeached Jerry Trump’s
explanation for his ability to identify Ferguson. The undisclosed evidence was material
because of the importance of Jerry Trump’s eyewitness identification to the State’s ability
to convict Ferguson, because the evidence would have permitted Ferguson to discover
other evidence that could have impacted the admissibility or the credibility of Jerry
Trump’s testimony, and because of the cumulative effect of the nondisclosure when
considered with other information the State did not disclose. The undisclosed evidence
renders Ferguson’s verdict not worthy of confidence.

The prosecutor who manufactured the case against Ferguson and withheld material exculpatory evidence from his attorney is now a Boone County Circuit Court judge.

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Thank you,

Fred


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