Escaping the Hell of Forced Confessions
After serving nearly a decade in jail for a crime authorities now say he didn’t commit, Ryan Ferguson has reinvented himself as a health expert.
Ryan Ferguson is the prototypical polite Midwesterner, the type of kid parents dream their daughter will bring home: affable and well-mannered, charming but deferential, intelligent but unassuming. In some ways he seems younger than he is, despite having lost ten years of his life. After an experience like the one Ferguson endured over the last decade, one expects him to be older, grayer, embittered.
You would never guess that two years ago, Ferguson was serving a 40-year prison sentence for second-degree murder, convicted in 2005 at the age of 19.
Ferguson, a native of Columbia, Missouri, strenuously maintained his innocence after his 2004 arrest for his alleged involvement in the deadly beating and strangling of Kent Heitholt, a sports editor for the Columbia Daily Tribune, three years earlier.
In the next eight years, a series of revelations pointed conclusively to Ferguson’s innocence, including the dramatic retraction of testimonies crucial to obtaining a guilty conviction.
After nearly a decade behind bars, a Missouri appellate court vacated his conviction, ruling that prosecutors withheld evidence in his trial. On November 12, 2013, Ferguson exited the maximum-security Jefferson City Correctional Center a free man.
Ferguson, now 30, lives in Florida with his girlfriend Myka Cain, who was one of a number of women who wrote to him while he was incarcerated.
“Most were supportive, some less supportive, some strange,” he tells me. “Mostly women who were overtly interested in me. It’s not out of the goodness of their heart. I don’t understand it.” But Cain was different, he says. “We were friends for a really long time before we chose to be together.”
When we meet in New York, Ferguson has just sweated through Barry’s Boot Camp, a notoriously grueling cross training fitness class. He’s in town to promote his new memoir, Stronger, Faster, Smarter: A Guide to Your Most Powerful Body, which he wrote during his last five months behind bars.
Prison was a brutal experience. “I spent a year in solitary confinement, otherwise known as ‘the hole,’ he says. “They only let you out for a shower once every three days. You can’t use the phone. You don’t have visiting hours even through the glass. You literally have no contact with anyone. You’re starving. You can’t communicate with your family at all. You lose yourself and then you come back.”
Indeed, Ferguson was determined to keep his mind agile. “I wanted to grow, to become a better reader and expand my vocabulary,” he says with the earnestness of an overachieving student. His dad would drop off books for him—everything from Ken Follet’s thrillers to The Idiot’s Guide to the Middle East and Guy Murchie’s The Seven Mysteries of Life. “My most valued possession in prison was my dictionary.”
When Ferguson wasn’t ensconced in a book, he was playing basketball or doing push-ups in his cell. “Being fit was sort of crucial to surviving in there,” Ferguson says of life in prison. When inmates begged him to share his workout regimen, he scribbled a one-page primer on keeping fit while caged in a six-by-eight foot cell.
“It quickly turned into three pages, and when I finished I realized that it was a table of contents,” says Ferguson, who is tall and muscular—a jock with all-American good looks. “I thought, I’m stuck in this hell hole. I could either read all day and work out really hard. Or I could try to write a book. I wanted to start and finish something.”
Ferguson puts his fortitude down to his loving upbringing within a tightly-knit, middle class family. His parents remained his stoutest supporters throughout his ordeal.
Despite tabloid-like details of the crime and the shocking circumstances that led to his conviction, Ferguson chose to write an uplifting book about lifting weights, not an angry rant about the Heitholt case, which remains unsolved.
On November 1, 2001, Kent Heitholt left the Columbia Daily Tribune newsroom at around 2:20 AM. Minutes later, the newspaper’s janitor would see two figures near Heitholt’s car (one of whom shouted “someone’s hurt out here, man”) and then discover his body, beaten and strangled to death.
Several years later, around the anniversary of the murder, Charles Erickson, a former high school classmate of Ferguson’s, told friends he was having “dreamlike” memories of being involved in the Heitholt crime.
Erickson, who was a heavy drug user, had seen a police sketch of one of the suspects—a college-aged male, as described by the janitor on the scene—and thought the sketch looked like him. Erickson was arrested after one his friends tipped off the police.
The night of Heitholt’s murder, Erickson and Ferguson stopped into a bar near the Tribune offices on their way home from a Halloween party. Erickson’s memory of the evening, as described to police interrogators, was schizophrenic at best: “It’s just so foggy, I could just be sitting here fabricating all of this.” (Erickson’s history of substance abuse would only later be revealed, as well as the fact that he had smoked marijuana prior to his interrogation. Police did not consider his alcohol and drug problems in their investigation).
When police drove him to the scene of the crime, Erickson couldn’t recall having been there before. There was no physical evidence. The circumstantial evidence was weak. And details Erickson provided of the crime didn’t made little sense. After detectives provided him specific information of Heitholt’s murder, Erickson confessed to the crime—and implicated Ferguson, too.
His initial confession was confused and incoherent, but by the time both young men went to trial in 2005, Erickson’s memory was vivid and detailed. He testified that he and Ferguson ran out of drinking money and decided to rob someone. Heitholt, who was leaving the Tribune offices several blocks away, was the unlucky victim. On the witness stand, Erickson reenacted the crime: he beat Heitholt with a tire tool, he said, while Ryan used the victim’s own belt to strangle him to death.
None of the forensic evidence from the crime scene—hair, unidentified fingerprints, bloody footprints—linked Ferguson or Erickson to the murder. But the prosecution had a convincing witness in Erickson, who was willing to take a 25-year plea bargain in exchange for testifying against Ferguson.
But why would Erickson—or anyone, for that matter—plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit?
Prosecutors had one other key witness who could place the two men at the crime scene: Jerry Trump, a convicted sex offender who worked as a janitor at the Tribune. Trump was there the night of the murder with another janitor, Shawna Ornt—the witness who saw two shadowy, college-age men near Heitholt’s car—and gave police a description of one as a possible subject. (This would be the sketch a stoned Erickson would identify as himself.)
At the time of the murder, Trump told detectives he hadn’t been able to see the figures’ faces. But when called to the witness stand four years later, he was able to identify one of them clearly: he pointed to Ryan Ferguson in the courtroom.
Ferguson’s fate was sealed.
“If two witnesses can place you at a murder scene and one of them says he committed the murder with you and will take a 25 year sentence, a jury is absolutely going to convict you,” says attorney Kathleen Zellner, who joined Ferguson’s defense team in 2009.
Zellner says Ferguson was on “life support” when she took on his case pro bono. “He had already lost the direct appeal. He’d lost the post-conviction appeal. All the doors had been slammed on him and no one cared about the DNA evidence.”
But Charles Erickson’s story had shifted a number of times over the years. And in Ryan Ferguson’s 2012 petition to challenge the legality of his conviction, Erickson claimed that police interrogators pressured him into confessing to a murder he didn’t commit.
During the same hearing, Jerry Trump testified that he had previously lied under oath, maintaining that he too was pressured by investigators. (Having just gotten out of prison on a probation violation before the trial, Trump was more than willing to assist prosecutors—even with bogus information.) After nearly a decade languishing behind bars, Ferguson’s conviction was overturned.
“In a nutshell, it was a reckless investigation that violated Ryan’s due process laws,” says Zellner.
And it had all the elements of a typical wrongful conviction: no matching DNA evidence, sketchy identifications from sketchy witnesses, coerced accusers, suspects with no connection to the victim, and a false confession from a single witness.
Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, says interrogations should be treated like scientific evidence to avoid false confessions. “Courts are only slowly becoming more aware of the research on false confessions, which shows just how detailed and seemingly accurate a false confession statement can seem.”
“I don’t like Charles Erickson,” says Ferguson. “He’s a strange individual. And he chose to lie in trial. He was a disturbed kid. But he had been threatened, lied to, and manipulated by police and prosecutors from day one. If they had done their job properly, anything he said or believed would be irrelevant.”
“Both he and Trump thought they were doing the right thing at the time, mostly because they were thinking about themselves. I don’t hold any ill will toward them. They have big balls—to come back and say that they lied, subjecting themselves to perjury charges where they could go to prison for 30 years.”
Indeed, Erickson is still serving his 25-year sentence. “The fact of the matter is that Charles Erickson is innocent,” says Ferguson. “And if police and prosecutors did their jobs right, neither he nor I would have been in prison and they might have found the person who actually committed the crime.”
Columbia police reopened the investigation in December. Ferguson’s defense team has previously pointed to Michael Boyd as a suspect. (A former sports writer at the Tribune, Boyd was the last person to see Heitholt—in the Tribune parking lot, not long before he died.) Boyd denied involvement in the crime and was never considered by police to be a person of interest.
Ferguson is meanwhile penning another self-help book, Hate: Turning Negative Energy into Positive Action. “Society tells us to be above hate, but I’m not that type of person. We shouldn’t have to shame ourselves and suppress our feelings. I hate society telling people that you shouldn’t be what you are.”
He’s also working with The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic based in New York, to raise awareness about the prevalence of wrongful convictions.
"Conservative estimates say that between three and five percent of the incarcerated population in America is innocent,” says Ferguson. “That’s up to 100,000 people, an astronomical number. I think it’s important that people understand that it could happen to anyone. You don’t even have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“These cases are all over the country,” echoes Zellner. “In Chicago we probably have 12 cases right now that are pending with people who have been in prison for 20 years.”
Ferguson stresses that he got lucky in the end. “People rallied around me,” he says, referring to the social media campaigns raising awareness around his case. “But would they have done that if I wasn’t young, educated, middle-class, and white?”
He has also become friendly with the convicted, then exonerated, then convicted again Amanda Knox. They have met multiple times, and Ferguson says of Knox’s family, “They’re really loving wholesome good people. He adds there’s “no doubt in my mind that she’s innocent.”
“I want to be able to sit down with someone in prison who I know is innocent based on evidence, and the only reason they’re there is because of technicalities in the criminal justice system,” Ferguson says. “If I can help spread awareness about wrongful convictions and help change the legal system to prevent innocent people from going to prison—then I will feel like those ten lost years in my life will have some relevance.”
After all he’s been through, Ferguson remains resolutely positive. “I lost ten years of my life,” he says, “but I’m willing to work very hard and willing to grow and sacrifice things now for my future.”