I don’t think anyone watching the Dateline episode The Mystery on Halloween Night could conclude other than an innocent person was convicted of a crime he did not commit. If the judge currently deliberating on Ryan Ferguson’s fate doesn’t overturn his conviction, it will be a miscarriage of justice of monumental proportions. The only thing I see standing between Ryan’s freedom and thirty more years behind bars is a justice system unwilling to admit a mistake and unwilling to deal with the ramifications of that mistake.
This case is a perfect example of how wrongful convictions occur. It’s all here: poor police work, prosecutorial misconduct, false testimony, and a rush to judgement. And while I am a big fan of Dateline and Keith Morrison, they made some poor decisions in telling their story. I’ll get to that in a second. But first the facts.
Since all I have to go on is what was presented in the Dateline episode, I make no claims as to being an expert on this case. But these are my observations. This case involves the murder of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor for the local paper in Columbia, Missouri. He was killed on Halloween night. Two overnight janitors reported seeing two white men around 19 or 20 years of age walking away from the scene around the time the body was discovered. Two bloody footprints were found at the scene.
First mistake. The police jump to the conclusion that these were obviously the people responsible for the killing. Forget the fact that they were walking and not running. Forget the fact that the two eyewitnesses could not identify the two men later when police arrested their suspects, with one of the witnesses stating that the two men arrested were not the two men she saw that night. Forget the fact that a police dog tracked the bloody footprints from the crime scene all the way to a dormitory that was within walking distance of a bar. And forget the fact that this was the only night of the year where seeing a bloody scene might not raise suspicions other than someone playing a Halloween prank. The police were looking for two killers.
The case goes unsolved, despite physical evidence at the scene, until two years later when someone reports that a friend has been confessing to the crime. So the police round of the confessor and start questioning him. He is foggy on the details. So the police help him out with the facts. But remember the police are looking for two suspects. So they start needling the guy to fess up his partner. Sure enough the lone suspect gives the police a name, someone who was with him the night of the crime. Bingo case solved. They now have the two people who committed the murder. But wait. The second guy, Ryan Ferguson, says he doesn’t know anything about the murder. He wasn’t there. The police have no evidence against Ryan other than the coerced confession of Charles Erickson. But the police and the media have already convicted poor Ryan. So they set a twenty million dollar bond and put him away, where he still sits today.
But you need more than an accusation to convict someone of murder, right? There has to be a trial. Charles Erickson agrees to a plea deal of 25 years for testifying against Ryan. But that’s really all they have to go on. The prosecution needs more. Some of the details of Erickson’s confession aren’t panning out. No problem, the police will just apply some pressure until they get people to agree with their version of events. But there are still some problems with their case. One of the eyewitnesses is positive that neither Ryan or Erickson were the two men she saw that night. And the other witness can’t be certain. No problem. We won’t give the defense the contradictory eyewitness testimony. And we’re going to help the one witness out by showing him pictures of the defendant just before he testifies. “It would really help us out,” prosecutor Kevin Crane says to the witness, “if you could identify him in court.” Sure enough the witness points his finger at Ryan and Ryan’s case is sealed forever. Verdict: Guilty. Sentence: Forty years. Kevin Crane goes on to be a judge. The police investigators pat themselves on the back. Everyone is happy.
But was justice served? There were some unanswered questions in the Dateline episode. For example: Ryan says that he talked with his girlfriend on the phone around the same time he was supposed to be committing a brutal murder. Did she testify? Did the defense present phone records? Why didn’t the defense team talk with the two eyewitnesses? Had they done so they would have discovered that one of the eyewitnesses was claiming that these were not the two people she saw. What about the total lack of physical evidence linking Ryan to the crime? Was it Erickson’s fingerprints on the car and his hair in the victim’s hands? What was the police explanation for the bloody footprints and scent that led to the dormitory? Why didn’t that play a bigger role? What about the person Charles originally confessed to and who later called the police. Did Charles implicate anyone else when he made his original confession? Why didn’t the defense team pursue that angle? Ryan took a polygraph test early on. The police told Ryan he was being deceptive. The police do it all the time to get confessions. But Dateline never followed up on the polygraph test. Did he pass? Was it inconclusive? Or did the person running the polygraph make a mistake? Note to self: never put your life in the hands of a polygraph. Did the police take any blood samples from the shoes of anyone in the dormitory? They interviewed a few people and that was it? Bloody footprints point down the street and a dog takes them all the way to the dormitory and the police don’t do any testing?
Fast forward seven years and Charles Erickson decides that he wants to clear his conscience. He tells Ryan’s attorney that Ryan was not involved in the murder. He was the sole person responsible for the crime. And the second witness states that he still isn’t certain about his identification of Ryan. So Ryan should immediately be set free, right? It was the false testimony that convicted him. You would think so. The first appeal judge comes back with the ridiculous conclusion that the recantations are nor credible. So I’m guessing that this judge is willing to accept the original false testimony, despite the lack of any evidence of any kind pointing to Ryan’s guilt.
You can watch the entire Dateline episode at The Mystery on Halloween Night. You can learn more about the Ryan Ferguson case at www.freeryanferguson.com. Here is another site www.justiceforryanferguson.com.
Dateline is known for giving balanced reports, as is Keith Morrison, but they made some bad decisions regarding how they told this story. First was their decision to promote this episode as a conviction based on a dream. They got that from the early beginnings of the story when Charles Erickson started telling friends that he was having dreams that he might have done something bad. Well, okay that’s a good premise if that’s all you have, but by the time the episode aired they knew that the whole dream angle was irrelevant. So why continue to go with that theme. They also made a mistake by presenting another individual as a likely suspect in the murder. Here’s the deal. A case like this doesn’t happen overnight. A two-hour Dateline episode doesn’t happen in a couple of weeks. It takes years for a story like this to unfold. At some point another suspect was identified by the defense team. Keith Morrison interviewed this suspect, a coworker. The line of questioning and the editing all pointed to the likelihood that this person was a viable suspect. And at the time when they were shooting it, he probably was. But once the truth was known they had no right to continue to present this individual as a suspect when they knew he had nothing to do with the crime. This is a case where the Dateline producers made a terrible decision to use footage that should have been cut. If I were the individual that Dateline put in this position, I would be looking at a lawsuit.
This is definitely one of those stories that sticks with you. Since the Dateline episode and since comments made from Ryan’s dad on this site, I decided to take a closer look at some of the evidence collected by Bill Ferguson. I also watched the 48 Hours episode detailing this case. You can watch the episode yourself at 48 Hours The Lost Night. I now feel that neither Ryan nor Charles Erickson were involved in the crime. Charles’s recantation doesn’t make much more sense than his original testimony. I admit that it would be unusual for Charles to implicate himself again in his attempt to free Ryan, but there is no denying that his recollection of events is based almost entirely on what he read in the newspaper and the facts given to him by the police. I also believe that Charles is convinced that he was involved even though he is unable to get his story straight. Bottom line is that the prosecutor in this case should have never even brought this case to trial. Once he saw that the police had to feed him most of the details, and once he saw that much of what he said was factually wrong (such as returning to the bar after it had closed), it should have been apparent that this was a false confession. So now there are two innocent people in jail, one who is convinced he is guilty, and the real murderer is walking free. And the police have the evidence they need to find the right person. But the prosecutor isn’t going to admit he put an innocent person in prison. The police detectives aren’t going to admit that they made numerous mistakes in the way they handled this case. And you have appeal judges unwilling to overturn any conviction regardless of what new evidence is provided. They are willing to accept perjured testimony but not willing to accept recanted testimony. The bottom line is that everyone in this case screwed up from the prosecutor, to the police, to the defense team that failed to do its job. If you want to know how innocent people get convicted, this is example one.
For those of you who have seen this story on 48 hours I urge you to watch the film The Confessions. You can watch the film right here on this blog. The post is titled An Absolute Must See Film. I hope you take the time to watch the film in its entirety. If you do, you will see how false confessions take place. If you don’t see the video player just refresh the screen. Once the film starts, click on the player to go directly to the Frontline site where you can watch the film in its entirety. This really is an absolute must see film.
Update 3: Free at last.
If you would like to help Ryan have a fresh start, you can contribute to a crowd funding campaign that has been setup on his behalf.