Justice is not blind, or perfect, but sometimes it is perfectly blind.
Ryan Ferguson, 29, was released from a Missouri prison Tuesday night after spending nearly a decade in prison for a murder he knew nothing about.
How did that happen?
Prosecutors and police had a vision of justice and found a suspect having psychotic visions of a brutal, unsolved murder. Mix those ingredients with a fallible jury and Lady Justice’s blindfold falls rather easily to the courtroom floor.
Last week, an appeals court overturned Ferguson’s conviction, saying the prosecutor’s office withheld evidence from his attorneys and that he didn’t get a fair trial. The state of Missouri will not retry the case.
Ferguson was convicted in 2005 for the 2001 beating death of Columbia Tribune sports columnist Kent Heitholt.
Heithold was outside the newspaper offices the night of Halloween when he was brutally beaten. Witnesses saw two suspects and the story got a lot of media attention. Police collected fingerprints and DNA at the crime scene, but after three years the investigation had gone nowhere.
The Tribune published an anniversary story in 2003 about the unsolved crime.
At a New Year’s Eve party in 2003, Chuck Erickson, who Ferguson was partying with on that fateful night in 2001, was overheard telling friends he had vague recollections of being involved in a killing. He repeated this story at other parties he attended in 2004.
One of Erickson’s friends went to police, who picked Erickson up and questioned him. In 52-minutes, police got Erickson to say he beat Heitholt and Ferguson choked him to death.
During the interview police gave Erickson most of the details of the crime.
After the interview, police took Erickson to the newspaper offices and the suspect, on videotape, asked police where Heitholt was actually killed. Police show him the parking spot Heitholt was killed at, and Erickson said “I don’t remember most of what happened.”
Police drove Erickson back to the police station and quizzed him for 22 more minutes. During that interview a detective told Erickson that Ferguson would likely just pin the whole crime on him.
Erickson seemed confused and said he was “trying to base what he remembers on what he’s read” in the newspaper and what police were telling him.
The detective tells Erickson he “doesn’t want to hear that [Erickson] fabricated” his confession.
Erickson pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life. For testifying against Ferguson, that sentence was reduced to 25 years with the possibility of parole in 12 years.
Ferguson was interviewed and said he had no idea what Erickson was talking about, and that he’d never been anywhere near the newspaper offices that night. He asked police if there were fingerprints at the crime scene, and police said yes. Ferguson said “you better get on those” because he knew they couldn’t be his.
There was never any physical evidence linking Erickson or Ferguson to the crime.
But the truth didn’t matter. Police had already gotten their story.
Ferguson was arrested for murder. A judge set bail at $20 million.
At trial, Erickson’s dreams had been transformed into firm conviction.
“I did this. He did this. I didn’t dream anything,” Erickson said during his 2005 testimony.
His testimony matched the police story almost perfectly, except for when he said he saw the victim speaking to a white man before the attack. The alleged white man, a sports writer at the newspaper, is actually black. Police had mistakenly listed the sports writer as being white in their reports.
Ferguson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Tuesday night, after being released, Ferguson said he spent nine years in prison trying to make himself a better person.
“I didn’t want to be a 19-year-old person in my mind” when released, he said before a throng of media and well-wishers.
Ferguson is not bitter and doesn’t think his case is unique.
“There’s a lot of people incarcerated wrongly,” he said. “A lot of people need help.”
What does he think about Erickson?
“He does not belong in prison. He is innocent. He was used and manipulated … he has been victimized. He’s an innocent man in prison. He’s not a killer.”
And what about Heitholt’s family? Does he have a message for them?
“They’ve been lied to by people they trust.”
The prosecutor in the case, Kevin Crane, disputes suggestions that he attempted to get investigators to manipulate or coerce witnesses.
“That’s a complete fabrication,” Crane, who is now a judge, said in the Kansas City Star. “There was no manipulation, nothing of the kind.”
But don’t lose any sleep over Ryan Ferguson’s years in prison. Nothing like that could possibly happen around here.
More news liberated from the Interwebs: