The Story of Ryan Ferguson: Wrongly Convicted of Murder, Can’t Get Released from Prison
In politics, we often discuss the term “judicial activism” or its antonym, “judicial restraint,” in civil cases where one party deems a judge’s decision as an attempt to force a social or political agenda versus following the letter of the law. We spend far less time on judicial activism, or the lack thereof, within the criminal justice system which often allows limited options for the men and women wrongfully convicted.
The U.S. criminal justice system, while arguably the best in the world, provides an innocent person with scant options of winning an appeal once convicted by a jury of their peers. The Truth in Justice report, Complicity of Judges in the Generation of Wrongful Convictions, concludes “a person’s innocence is discounted by judges (upon appeal) because it is not a constitutional issue.” Going on to say, “the Constitution only guarantees that procedural formalities will be followed, it does not guarantee the outcomes of those procedures will be accurate or fair.”
Truth in Justice arrives at their conclusion, citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Herrera v. Collins, that, “a claim of actual innocence is not in not itself a Constitutional claim.” Thus, appellate courts typically defer to the lower court decisions rarely overturning convictions regardless of the claim of innocence.
According to the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, approximately 3-5 percent of the prison population is innocent of the crime for which they are incarcerated. The leading cause of wrongful conviction: eyewitness misidentification.
Ryan Ferguson is one of the 72 percent wrongfully convicted based on false testimony and false eyewitness identification.
I first became aware of Ryan Ferguson’s case in 2006 through the show 48 Hours, and the episode dedicated to his trial and subsequent conviction for the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt. Ferguson, who had never been in trouble before being accused of murder, had no connection to the victim and was arrested and convicted based on the testimony of the high school friend he was with the night of the murder along with the eyewitness testimony of Jerry Trump.
In 2001, Ferguson and Chuck Erickson were indeed together. They snuck into a bar on Halloween night located within blocks of the murder scene. According to witnesses and to Ferguson’s testimony, the pair left the bar at around 1:15 a.m. Ferguson drove Erickson to his house and then drove straight home to his. From the outset of the murder accusation, Ferguson never waivers from his version of events.
Years after the 2001 Halloween night Ferguson and Erickson spent together, Ferguson was away at college while a troubled Erickson began confiding to friends he had “dreams” about the Heitholt murder. After Erickson’s friends reported their conversations to the police, he was brought in and questioned.
Erickson’s interrogation was taped, and in it we see a troubled young man being fed details about a crime of which he is unaware. He understood two people were involved in Heitholt’s murder, so in exchange for a 25 year sentence he identified the person he was with on that night, Ryan Ferguson.
In addition to Chuck Erickson’s testimony, Jerry Trump, a janitor from Heitholt’s office, identifies Ferguson as the person he saw the night of the murder.. However, what does not put Ferguson, or for that matter Erickson, at the crime scene is the myriad of blood, DNA and fingerprints recovered.
In November 2012, Dateline produced an update of Ferguson’s case coinciding with the Habeas Corpus petition filed on his behalf. The complaint alleges misconduct by Columbia police and former Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Crane, as well as recantations of trial testimony from the two key witnesses — Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump..
Given that eye-witness testimony is the only evidence linking Ferguson to the murder, a happy ending to this otherwise tragic miscarriage of justice was expected. He would be reunited with his family who tirelessly worked for his freedom. Instead, those watching the update were deeply saddened when Judge Green denied Ryan Ferguson’s Habeas petition.
Thankfully, Judge Green’s misguided decision placing the security of justice colleagues over Ferguson’s innocence is not the last word for him. In January 2013, his attorney appealed Judge Green’s decision to the Western District Appellate court. The Ferguson family expects a decision during the summer of 2013, nine years after Ferguson’s wrongful conviction.
Ryan Ferguson and his family continue displaying faith and grace beyond which many can comprehend. When I read an update on Ferguson’s case, I cannot help but to think of my son and what I would do if this were happening to him. The reality is, this happens all too often in the U.S., and could happen to any one of its citizens.
Do not misunderstand, the rule of law and Constitution on which our country is founded is the reason the U.S. remains the great beacon of hope and strongest government in the world. I have an immense respect for our legal system, and understand, most times, the system gets it right.
However, in Ferguson’s case, and in the case of countless others fighting for their freedom, our justice system got it wrong.
For more information on Ryan Ferguson’s case, please visit: http://freeryanferguson.com.
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- Without freedom, there is no justice: Free Ryan Ferguson (chaze77.com)
- Appeal filed in sports editor’s slaying (kshb.com)
- More than 2,000 wrongfully convicted people exonerated in 23 years, researchers say (news.blogs.cnn.com)
- Wrongful convictions a lasting scar on Texas justice system (star-telegram.com)
- Judge: No recall of wrongful conviction evidence (vindy.com)
- How Many Innocent People Have We Sent To Prison? (prisonmovement.wordpress.com)
- Compensation for wrongful convictions? (blogs.seattletimes.com)
- Tab for wrongful convictions in Texas: $65 million and counting (prisonmovement.wordpress.com)