Murder conviction based on dreams is tossed

KANSAS CITY, MO -- For years, the official story about Charles Erickson was that he began to have visions, lost memories that suddenly resurfaced in 2003.

That he’d blacked out and killed a Missouri newspaper editor two years earlier.

That he’d done the killing with a friend.

That they were murderers.

Erickson’s visions turned to talk, and talk turned to testimony -- with Erickson swearing to a jury that he and his friend Ryan Ferguson had bludgeoned and strangled Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt to death in the newspaper’s parking lot in 2001.

There was no physical evidence linking the two 17-year-olds to the scene, and Ferguson swore they were never there. But Erickson took a plea deal for 25 years, and Ferguson was convicted and sentenced to 40 years.

Now the case against Ferguson is unraveling.

On Tuesday, the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals threw out his 2005 conviction, ruling that prosecutors had withheld crucial evidence and that he did not get a fair trial.

“We are aware that by vacating Ferguson's criminal conviction, we have erased any measure of comfort that Mr. Heitholt's family and friends may have drawn from the belief that a person responsible for his senseless and brutal murder has been brought to justice,” the court said in its ruling.

However, the court noted, “Ferguson's conviction is not a verdict worthy of either judicial or public confidence.” Prosecutors have 15 days to decide whether to retry him.

News of the ruling and Ferguson’s possible release flashed across Missouri, where public doubt over the verdict has grown, aided by an aggressive innocence campaign led by his father, Bill Ferguson, 68.

“I get asked about this case more than any other case,” said Jennifer Bukowsky, a Columbia defense attorney who attended the trial as a law student. “A ‘Free Ryan Ferguson’ plane flies over football games. There’s a billboard. There’s a car. It’s a huge deal around here -- huge.... You have two young men, from good families, from Rock Bridge High School. One of them dreams a couple years afterward that he’s involved in this , and there’s no physical evidence tying them to it.”

Ferguson and Erickson were at a bar together shortly before Heitholt got off work, and prosecutors had speculated that the pair intended to rob him for money to keep drinking.

Two custodians for the newspaper saw two young white men by Heitholt’s car. One custodian said she got a good look at one youth; the other, Jerry Trump, initially told police he didn’t see anybody clearly.

Yet it was Trump who would become a star witness and place Ferguson at the scene -- after being incarcerated himself for an unrelated crime. While in prison, Trump told officials that he’d recognized Ferguson and Erickson’s photos in a newspaper his wife had sent him. On the strength of his and Erickson’s testimony, the jury convicted Ferguson.

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