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Missouri prosecutors won't retry man in 'dream killer' case

November 12, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • Ryan Ferguson in 2012, while incarcerated at the Missouri State Corrections Prison outside Jefferson City.
Ryan Ferguson in 2012, while incarcerated at the Missouri State Corrections… (Rich Sugg / Kansas City Star )

After serving eight years in prison and facing decades more behind bars, Ryan Ferguson is about to become a free man.

Missouri Atty. Gen. Chris Koster announced Tuesday that he would not pursue another trial against Ferguson, whose 2005 murder conviction was thrown out by a state appeals court last week in a ruling that blasted local prosecutors for withholding evidence and said Ferguson didn't get a fair trial.

"After studying the appellate court’s opinion in [Ferguson's appeal] and carefully reviewing the remaining known evidence in the case, the attorney general’s office will not retry or pursue further action against Ryan Ferguson at this time," Koster's office said in a one-sentence statement.

Ferguson's story is well known across Missouri and received national attention largely on the peculiarity of the case against the Columbia, Mo., man, which is sometimes called the "dream killer" case.

Ferguson was 17 years old when Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was beaten and strangled to death in the newspaper's parking lot.

Two years after the killing, a friend of Ferguson's, Chuck Erickson, said he suddenly began to have dreamlike visions of killing Heitholt with Ferguson, and he eventually testified against Ferguson at trial in exchange for a lighter sentence.

A newspaper janitor also testified that he saw Ferguson at the scene, though he initially told police it had been too dark for him to see the two men that were spotted nearby Heitholt's car.

Ferguson was convicted despite his protests that neither he nor Erickson was at the scene, and no physical evidence connected the young men to the crime.

In the last two years, Erickson and the janitor, Jerry Trump, have since said they perjured themselves, galvanizing Ferguson's continuing efforts to free himself through the state's appeals courts.

Last week the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals threw out Ferguson's conviction, focusing less on the recanted testimonies than on the fact that an investigator for the prosecution had failed to take down notes during his interviews and turn them over to the defense.

In particular, the court cited the discovery that before Ferguson's trial, the janitor's wife had denied sending him a newspaper in which he claimed to recognize the boys as the killers from their photos.

The court gave prosecutors 15 days to make a decision on whether to retry Ferguson, which promised to be a staggering challenge, with both of the prosecution's key witnesses retracting their own testimony and no physical evidence connecting Ferguson to the scene.

Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight, who had helped prosecute the 2005 trial, requested Friday that a special prosecutor take over the case, citing an unspecified conflict of interest.

That led up to the attorney general office's decision Monday to drop the case.

Ferguson's father, Bill Ferguson, couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

After the conviction was vacated, Ferguson, now 29, issued a handwritten statement from prison expressing his hopes that he would be home for Thanksgiving, on Nov. 28.

The office for Ferguson's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, said she would be issuing a statement shortly.

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