JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A former janitor who once testified he saw convicted killer Ryan Ferguson at the crime scene where Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was killed in 2001 now says his previous statements were false.
Jerry Trump was the first witness Monday in a packed Cole County courtroom where Ferguson hopes to win a new trial. The hearing, expected to last all week, is taking place in Jefferson City since Ferguson is imprisoned in the capital city. He is serving a 40-year sentence for second-degree murder and robbery following his 2005 conviction.
Chuck Erickson approached police in 2004 and confessed to killing Heitholt with the help of Ferguson, his high school friend. Several weeks later, Trump, a convicted sex offender recently released from prison, met with then-Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane, now a circuit court judge. In a videotaped deposition shown in court Monday, Trump said Crane and a Boone County investigator coached him so he would identify Erickson and Ferguson as the two men he saw outside the newspaper's parking lot in the early-morning hours after Halloween 2001.
Heitholt was attacked and strangled to death while feeding a stray cat outside the Tribune, where Trump worked on an overnight cleaning crew.
While Trump acknowledged that Crane never directly asked him to lie about the witness identification, the former janitor said he felt pressured to give law enforcement the confirmation they were seeking. That account contradicts his previous certainty of the two men's involvement.
Trump said Crane told him "it would be helpful" if he could identify Erickson and Ferguson. Freed on parole and fearful of the consequences, Trump said he complied.
"I was trying to be helpful as best I could," he said. "He (Crane) was selling me...that these are the guys that did it. So why would we question him?"
Crane, who is scheduled to testify in the case later this week, could not be reached for comment late Monday afternoon. He has previously denied improper conduct by his office in the prosecution of Ferguson and Erickson, including during court testimony at a 2008 post-conviction hearing in which Ferguson's guilt was affirmed. Crane spent 14 years as Boone County's elected prosecutor before he became a judge in 2007.
Erickson, who received a lesser prison sentence of 25 years for testifying against his Rock Bridge High School classmate, has said he initially repressed his memory of the killing but began to recall details two years later after reading news accounts and traveling past the crime scene. Some of those details emerged in his dreams.
Like Trump, he too is now recanting that testimony. In 2010, Erickson said in a sworn affidavit that while he and Ferguson were at the crime scene, he alone was responsible for Heitholt's death. Erickson is expected to testify Wednesday.
Assistant attorney general Ted Bruce said Monday that Erickson's change of heart is motivated by self-preservation. Derided as a "rat" and "snitch" in prison and assaulted by other inmates, Erickson now wants to parlay his new version into a lesser sentence or even his own release, Bruce told Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green.
"That's an absolute lie," Bruce said, describing Erickson's new claims. "Mr. Erickson's sense of conscious (was) replaced by the realities of prison."
Later Monday, two more expert witnesses hired by Ferguson's defense attorneys raised questions about evidence presented at trial.
Private investigator Steve Kirby testified that Trump and another Tribune janitor who implicated the two men could not have clearly identified the pair from a location 75 to 100 feet from the newspaper's employee entrance. Another defense expert criticized the work of Columbia police detectives, suggesting that Erickson crafted his account of the crime scene in part through leading questions during a police interrogation.
Defense attorney Kathleen Zellner said she also plans to call a new witness who will testify that she saw Ferguson and Erickson drive away from the crime scene in Ferguson's car. Police and prosecutors have said the two men fled the Tribune parking lot on foot while carrying a tire iron used to beat Heitholt.
"As the case has progressed, the truth has revealed itself," Zellner said. "Ryan Ferguson is actually innocent of the murder of Kent Heitholt."
The courtroom gallery included Miller County resident Dale Helmig, who spent nearly 15 years in prison for the murder of his mother before a judge ruled in November 2010 that he had been wrongfully convicted. Helmig said he attended the hearing to show support for Ferguson and his family and believes in the convicted man's innocence.
"I know exactly what they're going through," he said.