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.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

We have reached that time of the month when we ask our readers to consider making a donation. We cannot maintain this blog without your assistance.

Thank you,

Fred


False Confessions II: The Phoenix Buddhist Temple Massacre (UPDATED)

January 8, 2013

On August 10, 1991, nine bodies were discovered at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist Temple in the West Valley near Tucson Phoenix, AZ. The nine victims were six Buddhist monks, a nun and two acolytes.

William Hermann of The Arizona Republic described the scene.

Investigators found nine victims lying face down and grouped together, their heads pointing inward like spokes in a wheel. Some had their hands clasped in prayer. The carpet was bloody from head wounds made by .22-caliber bullets and shotgun blasts to torsos, arms and legs.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s detectives spent six days processing the crime scene. They made numerous diagrams, collected all of the shell casings, tore down walls, and removed all of the carpeting. However, despite all of their efforts they did not identify any promising suspects until a month later when they received a phone call from a patient in a mental hospital named Mike McGraw. He told them that some of his friends had committed the murders.

After the phone call, the police picked up McGraw and four of his friends: Mark Nunez (age 19), Dante Parker (age 20), Leo Bruce (age 28), and Victor Zarate (age 28). Over the course of three days of grueling nonstop interrogations from 9 pm to dawn, they eventually obtained confessions from four of the five suspects by refusing to take “no” for an answer and, after breaking them down, they committed the additional sin of providing them with some details of the crime that only the killers would know so that their confessions would be self-authenticating. Only Mark Nunez Victor Zarate failed to succumb to their tactics, so they released him and then they held a big press conference where they triumphantly announced that they had solved the murders.

Six weeks later their case against the Tucson Four, who had subsequently recanted their confessions, fell apart when the crime lab announced that it had identified the murder weapon.

How did that happen, you ask?

On August 21st police had confiscated a .22 caliber rifle from two West Valley boys, Rolando Caratachea and Johnathan Doody, after stopping them at Luke Air Force Base. When the crime lab finally got around to testing the rifle, the analyst discovered that that it was the murder weapon.

The next day, detectives picked up Caratachea (the owner of the gun), Doody and a third boy, Alessandro Garcia, and subjected them to the same non-stop interrogation tactics. Two days later, Garcia confessed that he and Doody did the shootings. Doody admitted that he was present but denied shooting anyone. Caratachea denied being involved.

Three weeks later, Garcia confessed to another murder. Katharine Ramsland reports he told the police that two months after the temple massacre,

he and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Hoover, had murdered Alice Cameron, 50, in a campground. Garcia had goaded Michelle to do it, so she had pulled the trigger. They waited an hour to be sure the woman was dead and then stole her money, which amounted to $20. Michelle pleaded guilty and got 15 years.

As in the case of the Tucson Four, police had coerced an innocent man into falsely confessing to killing Hoover. He was released after serving more than a year in prison.

One month later the prosecution dismissed the charges against the Tucson Four and released them from jail.

Garcia and Doody, who were juveniles, were charged with the murders. Their cases were transferred to adult court due to the seriousness of the charges and the prosecution announced that it would seek the death penalty against both defendants.

Garcia eventually entered into a plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to first degree murder and testify against Doody in exchange for the prosecution agreeing not to seek the death penalty against him.

Doody was convicted. The judge declined to impose the death penalty because he was not certain whether Doody was more culpable than Garcia. He sentenced him to 281 years in prison. Garcia was sentenced to 271 years in prison.

In May, 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Doody’s conviction on the ground that his confession was coerced. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for a new trial. The SCOTUS denied review.

His case has not been resolved.

The Tucson Four sued Maricopa County and the case settled for $2.8 million.

The man who falsely confessed to the Hoover murder also received a settlement.

Those of you who are interested in reading more about false confessions, please google the name Dr. Richard Ofshe or go to falseconfessions.org

UPDATE: I have edited the article to make the following corrections: The temple is located in the West Valley, near Phoenix. Victor Zarate, rather than Mark Nunez, refused to confess and was released.


%d bloggers like this: