COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- A 29-year-old Missouri man whose conviction for the killing of a newspaper sports editor was overturned is free from custody after the state attorney general said he would not hold a new trial.
Ryan Ferguson was released from a state prison in Jefferson City Tuesday afternoon and taken to the Boone County Jail in Columbia, which freed him shortly before 6 p.m. He had been imprisoned since 2005.
Ferguson waved to a crowd of cheering supporters from the back seat of his father’s car on the way to a news conference.
A Missouri appeals court last week overturned Ferguson’s conviction in the 2001 strangling and beating death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. Ferguson was 17 at the time of the killing. A high school classmate implicated him.
The Missouri attorney general said Tuesday that he won’t seek to retry a man whose murder conviction and 40-year prison sentence in the slaying of a newspaper sports editor were recently overturned.
The decision by Attorney General Chris Koster means that Ryan Ferguson could be released from prison as soon as Tuesday evening.
Last week, a state appeals court overturned Ferguson’s murder and robbery convictions for the 2001 strangling and beating death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, a case that drew national attention. The appeals panel said the prosecutor’s office had withheld evidence from defense attorneys and Ferguson did not receive a fair trial.
Koster’s office said in a written statement Tuesday that it had carefully reviewed the remaining evidence and decided not to retry or pursue any further legal action against Ferguson at this time. Koster’s office also filed a court document Tuesday indicating it had no objection to Ferguson’s immediate release.
Ferguson’s case has been the subject of numerous national television news shows, in part because his 2005 conviction came after his high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, testified that he had recalled from dreams several years later that the two of them had been involved in Heitholt’s slaying after a late night of Halloween partying.
Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson. At that trial, Erickson said Ferguson had suggested they rob someone to get money for alcohol and that Erickson had hit Heitholt with a metal tire tool before Ferguson had strangled him Heitholt’s belt.
But Erickson has since recanted his testimony. During a 2012 court hearing, Erickson said that he had been a heavy drug and alcohol user with hazy memories and had originally been persuaded by police and media accounts into believing he was guilty. But Erickson said he now no longer is sure of that and was adamant that Ferguson did not do it.
Former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump also said during a 2012 hearing that he had falsely testified during Ferguson’s trial when he identified Ferguson and Erickson as the men he saw in the newspaper’s parking lot where Heitholt was killed early Nov. 1, 2001.
Shortly after the attorney general’s announcement Tuesday, Judge Gary Witt, the presiding judge of the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, issued an order directing Ferguson to be immediately released from state prison and into the custody of the Boone County Circuit Court. The judge ordered that court set conditions for Ferguson’s release within 48 hours.
Ferguson’s attorney and family went on Tuesday to the Jefferson City prison where he was being held. His father, Bill Ferguson, told reporters that they hoped Ferguson could go before a judge in Columbia later Tuesday so that he could be freed.
Last week’s appeals court ruling said an investigator in the Boone County prosecutor’s office should have shared details about an interview he had with Trump’s wife that could have raised questions about Trump’s account before Ferguson’s trial. The appeals panel cited that as part of a pattern in which prosecutors failed to disclose evidence to Ferguson’s defense attorneys.
“We conclude that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial. His verdict is not worthy of confidence,” the court wrote in its ruling.
After the appeals court ruling, the Boone County prosecutor stepped aside from the case and an assistant attorney general was appointed as a special prosecutor as the state was considering whether to re-try Ferguson.
Ferguson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner of Chigaco, filed a motion last week with the appeals court seeking Ferguson’s release pending a decision on whether to retry him. The court filing noted that there was no physical evidence linking Ferguson to Heitholt’s slaying and that the only two witnesses to implicate him had since reversed their testimony.
Zellner had said she was confident the appeals court ruling would stand.
“This battle should stop now, and he should be allowed to go home with his family, and they should continue the investigation for the real murdered of Kent Heitholt,” Zellner said last week.
Zellner said in court documents that Ferguson planned to live with his mother in Columbia upon his release and work for his father, a real estate broker. Bill Ferguson said he looked forward to playing basketball with his son.
“We always knew he would be freed eventually,” Bill Ferguson said last week. “We always knew this day would come.”