Monday, August 22, 2016

Ryan Ferguson: Chicago; Bulletin: 'Unlocking the Truth': MTV takes on his story in the first episode of its new series (hosted by him) on wrongful convictions which screens on Wednesdays. Reported by Maya Dukmasova; Chicago Reader;

"In the last two years, stories of possible wrongful convictions have taken the true-crime genre by storm. To the Serial podcast and Netflix's Making a Murderer, we can now add MTV's Unlocking the Truth. "It could happen to anyone" says Ryan Ferguson in the opening scenes of the show, as he explains his own story. When Ferguson was 19, he was convicted of murdering a newspaper editor in his hometown of Columbia, Missouri, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. After his case got picked up by Chicago-based attorney Kathleen Zellner—who has successfully litigated exonerations for 17 men and now represents Steven Avery of Making a Murderer—attorneys found that evidence against Ferguson was obtained through coerced false confessions by local police and prosecutors. Ferguson spent ten years in prison before being exonerated in 2013. Last year, a documentary film about Ferguson's case caught the attention of MTV producers. "I thought what a great way to tackle this [issue]—with someone who had been through it," says Adam Kassen, one of the series' executive producers. Ferguson's case is presented as a backdrop in the show. Now that his name's been cleared, he's decided to help others in similar situations. Early in the first episode he joins forces with Eva Nagao of the Chicago-based Exoneration Project to investigate three other cases of possible wrongful convictions. The cases are those of Michael Politte, accused of killing his own mother in Missouri and setting her body on fire when he was 14; Kalvin Michael Smith, accused of beating a pregnant woman nearly to death in North Carolina when he was 26; and Byron Case, who was accused of killing a female friend at the age of 19, also in Missourri..........Ultimately though, Nagao says she's "ecstatic" about how the show turned out, and is hopeful that it will draw wider attention to the problem of wrongful convictions. Between three and five percent of U.S. prisoners are estimated to be innocent, which translates to an estimated 60,000 people currently serving time for crimes they didn't commit......... The misconduct highlighted in the first two episodes alone is jarring—witness testimony is ignored, evidence is lost or not collected at all, obvious suspects are overlooked, confessions are coerced. Perhaps it's nothing new, but it is a reminder that the machinery of the criminal justice system around the country is often morally and procedurally compromised, no matter the defendant's race. " Unlocking the Truth premiered on MTV August 17 and will air every Wednesday at 10 PM central. The two-hour finale airs September 28 at 9 PM central.

See Wikipedia entry at the link below; Investigation: "Ornt told police that she got a good look at the young men while Trump reported that he was unable to see them clearly. Police recovered unidentified fingerprints on and inside Heitholt's car as well as an unidentified hair in his hand. Police also recovered footprints in the blood at the crime scene. Ornt gave police a description of the men and a composite sketch was made.[8] The crime had been unsolved for two years when, in October 2003, local media again covered the murder. Erickson reportedly had several dreams about the crime after seeing an article in a newspaper and, a few days later, mentioned the murder to Ferguson asking him if he thought he may have be involved. "It was crazy that someone had been murdered a couple blocks away from where we had been partying". said Erickson. Ferguson reassured him that he was not involved in the crime. Over time, Erickson says, he began to think more and more about the murders and about the fact that he could not remember that evening.[10] In November 2003, Erickson read an article in the local newspaper that included a sketch of a possible suspect in the case. Erickson thought the sketch resembled him and became more concerned. He told friends Nick Gilpin and Art Figueroa about his worries and they notified police.[9] In the recorded interrogation, Erickson seems to have little knowledge of the crime. He told police, "It's just so foggy... I could be sitting here fabricating all of it."[11] At one point he is asked questions about the weapon used to strangle Heitholt. Erickson replies that he thinks it was a shirt. When the police officer tells him that it was not, he replies "Maybe a bungee cord?" Eventually the police officer tells Erickson that the weapon was Heitholt's own belt. Erickson replies: "I don't remember that at all."[11] After much prodding by investigators, Erickson eventually told police that he and Ferguson robbed Heitholt for drinking money.[8][12][13] In March, 2004, Erickson and Ferguson were arrested and charged with the murder.[9][14] Trial: The police offered Erickson a plea deal in exchange for testimony against Ferguson at his trial, which took place in 2005. Along with Erickson, Jerry Trump, a janitor at the Tribune, testified that he saw Erickson and Ferguson at the scene. Trump testified that while he was in jail on unrelated charges, his wife sent him a news article about the crime. He claims that as he removed the newspaper from the envelope, he saw photos of Erickson and Ferguson and immediately recognized them as the two men standing over Heithold on the evening of the murder.[8] When on the witness stand, Erickson was able to give a detailed description of Ferguson strangling Heitholt, despite apparently not remembering any details following the murders and during the interrogation. The defense countered that all of the evidence found at the crime scene pointed elsewhere. None of the hair, blood, or fingerprint samples collected at the crime scene were consistent with Ferguson[12] or Erickson, and no traces of the victim's blood were found in the vehicle Ferguson was driving the night of the murder.[2] Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery and sentenced to 40 years in prison.[15] Conviction vacated, charges dismissed: Following the conviction, Ferguson gained a following with wrongful conviction advocacy groups. In 2009, high-profile Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner took over Ferguson's case working pro bono.[16] In 2012, both Erickson and Trump recanted their confessions in statements obtained by Zellner and her investigator. In the subsequent habeas corpus hearing, both Erickson and Trump admitted that they lied at Ferguson's trial.[ Erickson claimed that prosecutor Kevin Crane pressured him into implicating Ferguson. Erickson testified in the habeas hearing that he does not remember the evening of the murder because of heavy drug and alcohol use and that he blacked out.[15] Trump recanted the story about his wife sending him the newspaper article. Trump claimed that Crane pressured him into testifying against Ferguson, and said that the first time he saw the newspaper photos was in 2004 at the prosecutors office, after he was released from prison.[15][18][19] "On more than one occasion, he said 'I've got the right two guys' — almost like a cheerleader", Trump said, alleging Crane also showed him a Tribune newspaper with Ferguson's photo and said it would be "helpful" for him to identify Ferguson as having been at the crime scene.[20] Boyd, the last person to see Heitholt alive in the parking lot, was also called as a witness. Under questioning, Zellner elicited a timeline from Boyd that placed him with Heitholt at the time of the murder. The court cited these critical admissions in its opinion. Boyd's five conflicting stories were known before the hearing, but no one had ever called him as a witness in a court proceeding where he testified under oath.[2] Zellner filed an original writ of habeas corpus with the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, citing a number of flaws in the criminal trial. Notable among these were proof that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense team – Brady violations. Through the questioning of prosecution investigators by Zellner's law partner, Douglas Johnson, at the habeas corpus hearing, it was uncovered that during an interview with Trump's wife, she told investigators that she did not remember sending him any newspapers. This interview was not disclosed to the defense team. The Court of Appeals described "a pattern of non-disclosures" by the police and prosecutors that infected Ferguson's conviction.[8][18] The other janitor, Shawna Ornt, who witnessed the two men fleeing the parking lot eventually testified under oath that she had told the prosecutor that the man she saw the night of the murder was not Ferguson. She claims Crane repeatedly tried to get her to implicate him and that he became threatening during his last conversation with her. Despite being the sole witness who reported that she could identify the men at the scene, Shawna Ornt was never asked in court if she could identify Ferguson. Zellner alleged that the prosecution did not ask her to identify Ferguson because they knew her answer would hurt their case.[8][18] Other evidence that was withheld from the defense trial team was related to the time frame of the murder and Ferguson and Erickson's movements during the evening. Erickson testified at Ferguson's trial that: following the murder, he and Ferguson went back to the bar around 2:45am and were let into the bar by the same bouncer who had let them in the first time. He claimed on the stand that they left between 4 and 4:30 am.[8][18] Kim Bennett, another bar patron who knew Ferguson and Erickson, testified that she saw Ferguson and Erickson leave the bar between 1:15 a.m. and 1:30 am. She was never called to testify at the trial and her statement was not disclosed to Ferguson's defense team. Mike Schook, the bouncer at the bar on the night of the murder, testified the bar closed at 1:30 am that evening, disproving Erickson's claims that they returned to the bar following the murders.[8][18] Ferguson's conviction was vacated in November 2013 on the basis that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense team. Following the reversal, the Attorney General of Missouri announced he does not plan to refile charges against Ferguson.[21] The case remains unsolved, and police are considering reopening the case.[22] Civil rights suit: On March 11, 2014, Ferguson filed a civil suit against 11 individuals as well as Boone County, Missouri and the city of Columbia in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. The suit alleges suppression of exculpatory evidence, fabrication of evidence, reckless or intentional failure to investigate, malicious prosecution, conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights, false arrest, and defamation. The defendants include several police officers as well as prosecutor Kevin Crane.[23] Ferguson's case has been cited by the National Registry of Exonerations as an exoneration.[24] The charges against him were dismissed because, as the Western District Appellate Court pointed out in its decision, there was no evidence left that would support a conviction.[2] The Attorney General of Missouri dismissed the charges because Ferguson presented overwhelming evidence of his innocence in his habeas petition to that court. A mere Brady violation would not prevent a re-trial. The civil suit alleges that following Ferguson's release, former prosecutor Crane and former police chief Boehm harmed Ferguson by continuing to make statements about his guilt.[25][26]Charles Erickson: Charles Erickson remains imprisoned for the crime. He is serving a 25-year sentence in exchange for testifying against Ferguson.[20] Despite his involvement in implicating Ferguson, Ryan has vowed to help Erickson with his release from prison as well. "There are more innocent people in prison, including Erickson ... I know that he was used and manipulated and I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He needs help, he needs support, he doesn't belong in prison", Ferguson said. The Ferguson family has offered a $10,000 reward for any tips in solving the case."[27]Media coverage: In September 2013, the first book about the Ryan Ferguson case was released: Free Ryan Ferguson: 101 Reasons Why Ryan Ferguson Should Be Released, by Brian D'Ambrosio. The book details allegations of police misconduct and intimidation by Prosecutor Crane. There are also accounts of bogus police reports and alleged witnesses claiming that affidavits against Ferguson were signed in their names. D'Ambrosio proposes alternate theories and examines the allegations against Michael Boyd, the final person to speak with the victim.[28] The case has been featured on 48 Hours,[4] Dateline,[5] and numerous other newspapers and media outlets.[6] A documentary titled dream/killer detailing the case and Bill Ferguson's journey to free his son debuted at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.[29] It aired in August 2016 as a two-hour special on Investigation Discovery network.[30] Personal life: Soon after he was arrested, Ferguson began devoting his time to fitness and health. "I know you're innocent, but while you're in there, I can't protect you," his father told him four days after his arrest in 2004. "You have to do everything you can to make yourself stronger, faster, and smarter to survive." He began exercising and lifting weights.[31] Following his release, Ferguson became a certified personal trainer. In 2015, he published a book, Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide to Your Most Powerful Body, titled after advice his father gave him.[citation needed] In April 2016, it was announced that Ferguson would be the host of an upcoming MTV series, "Unlocking The Truth. The series is described as a serialized documentary following other cases of wrongful conviction.[1]

See National Registry of Exonerations entry on Ryan Ferguson at the link below: "At 2:08 a.m. on November 1, 2001, 48-year-old Kent Heitholt, sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, signed off his computer and left the newspaper offices. Less than 15 minutes later, two newspaper custodians saw two white males standing next to the Heitholt’s car in the Tribune parking lot. One yelled, “Someone’s hurt out here, man,” and both walked out of the lot. Police were called and arrived within minutes, but Heitholt was next to his car with severe head wounds. He had been strangled to death.
  Police questioned the two custodians, Shawna Ornt and Jerry Trump. Ornt was able to work with a sketch artist and provide a composite drawing of only one of the men, who she said was muscular, with blond hair and was in his early 20’s. Trump was unable to provide a description of either man, except to say they were white and in their 20’s. Heitholt’s watch and keys were missing, but his wallet was inside the car. The murder remained unsolved for two years. In October 2003, the local newspapers printed articles about the case and the fact that it was still unsolved. Charles Erickson read the articles and began to wonder if he had committed the crime. On the night of the murder, Erickson and his high school classmate, Ryan Ferguson, both 17 years old, were drinking at a tavern called By George, located a few blocks from the Tribune. Erickson had gotten so drunk that night that he blacked out and could not remember anything after leaving the bar. But prompted by the news articles, Erickson told Ferguson in late December 2003 or early January 2004, that he was having “dream like” memories that he and Ferguson had murdered Heitholt. Ferguson ridiculed Erickson and said that was not true, but Erickson told two other friends about his recovered memories. One of the friends called police.  On March 10, 2004, Columbia police picked up Erickson and after questioning, he confessed that he and Ferguson robbed and killed Heitholt. Ferguson was arrested the same day. He denied any involvement in the crime and said that after he and Erickson left the tavern, he dropped Erickson off at his home and then went to his own home. Ferguson and Erickson were charged with first degree murder and robbery. In 2004, Erickson pled guilty to murder and robbery, was sentenced to 25 years in prison and agreed to testify against Ferguson. Ferguson went on trial in the fall of 2005 in Boone County Circuit Court before a jury. There was no physical evidence linking him or Erickson to the crime, though the police had recovered fingerprints and footprints from the murder scene. The prosecution claimed that Erickson and Ferguson left the bar intending to rob someone to get money so they could continue drinking—despite the fact that the bar had already closed by the time of the crime and even though Heitholt’s wallet was found in his car. The prosecution theorized that Ferguson and Erickson walked a few blocks from the bar, happened upon Heitholt and beat and strangled him. A pathologist testified that Heitholt was struck 11 times in the head with what appeared to be a tire iron before being strangled. The prosecution’s evidence consisted of Erickson’s confession and the testimony of Trump, the newspaper custodian who had initially said he could not identify the men in the parking lot. Trump, a convicted sex offender, testified that he had been arrested on a parole violation in December 2001—not long after the murder—and was in prison in December 2004 when his wife mailed him a copy of a newspaper article about the arrests of Erickson and Ferguson. Trump claimed that the newspaper was folded in such a way that he saw the photographs of Ferguson and Erickson before he saw the article about their arrest. He testified that he immediately recognized the photographs as the men he saw in the parking lot on the night of Heitholt’s murder. Trump then identified Ferguson in court. On December 5, 2005, Ferguson was convicted of second degree murder and first degree robbery. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Ferguson’s convictions were upheld on appeal. In November 2009, Erickson reached out to Ferguson’s lawyers and gave a taped statement saying that he alone committed the murder and robbery and that Ferguson was an innocent bystander. The videotape was given to attorney Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago area defense lawyer who had investigated and helped more than a dozen other wrongfully convicted defendants prove their innocence. A motion for a new trial based on the recantation was filed and denied. In February 2011, Ferguson filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Cole County, where he was incarcerated. The petition alleged that Trump had recanted his trial testimony that his wife had mailed him the newspaper with the story about the Heitholt murder. In fact, Trump said, the prosecution had reached out to him and showed him the newspaper, and that he falsely identified Ferguson and Erickson so that he would be released from prison. The prosecution denied showing the newspaper to Trump. In addition, the petition alleged that Erickson had expanded his recantation to say that he was not involved in the murder and neither was Ferguson. Moreover, the petition alleged that the prosecution had interviewed Trump’s wife before Ferguson’s trial and she told them that she had not sent any newspaper articles to Trump. After a hearing, the petition was denied in October 2012. Ferguson then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Missouri Court of Appeals in January 2012, alleging the same claims—that the prosecution had withheld evidence that would have impeached Trump. At a hearing on the petition, Trump claimed that the prosecution showed him the newspaper photographs and he decided to falsely implicate Ferguson and Erickson in the hope of future leniency. On November 5, 2013, the Missouri Court Of Appeals reversed Ferguson’s conviction, ruling that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence that showed Trump had lied at Ferguson’s trial—that Trump’s wife said she did not mail him the newspaper. The court ordered the prosecution to decide within 15 days whether to retry Ferguson or to appeal the decision granting a new trial  On November 12, the Boone County District Attorney’s Office said it would not pursue the case any longer and Ferguson was released. In March 2014, Ferguson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the prosecutor and police officers involved in his case. "