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.