I was very young when my uncle was murdered and I don’t remember a lot of details. There was some cold comfort for my family because the man who murdered my uncle was arrested and convicted. There were no doubts. The right person paid for the crime. He didn’t get much of a sentence, but at least we knew for certain that the authorities had the right perpetrator. When I hear about cases of wrongful conviction, it always bothers me a great deal. There is no justice for the victim or the victim’s family if the wrong person is convicted. When I saw a program about Ryan William Ferguson’s case, it was like watching an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Unfortunately, it’s very real.
Ryan’s case was featured on “48 Hours Mystery” as “The Lost Night,” which was the second show that “48 Hours” devoted to Ryan’s case. Ryan and a former friend, Charles Erickson, were both convicted for the murder of Kent Heitholt, who was a reporter for the Columbia Tribune in Missouri. The only reason they were arrested in the first place was because of a dream. Two years after Mr. Heitholt was murdered, Charles had a dream that caused him to believe he might be involved in the murder. He told two friends about the dream, and soon found himself being interrogated by the police. During the interrogation, he implicated Ryan Ferguson. They were both arrested and eventually convicted.
After watching “48 Hours,” I learned all that I could about Ryan’s case. How could someone be convicted based on a dream? I watched the video of Charles Erickson’s interrogation. He was confused and rambling. The police in the video appear to be “filling in the blanks” for Charles. By the time the case went to trial, Charles was an expert on the crime. He testified against Ryan in exchange for a lighter sentence. He has recanted his testimony more than once since then, most recently at a hearing in April, 2012, as reported by the Columbia Tribune.
There are many troubling things about this case. Eyewitnesses have declared that they were coerced by the prosecution. Then there’s the physical evidence: The victim’s bloody hand was found to be clutching several strands of hair at the crime scene. The hair had to be the killer’s hair; there is no other possible explanation. The hairs were tested and do not belong to Ryan or Charles. There is no physical evidence which links Ryan or Charles to the crime at all. Why are these two young men in prison?
There is a big problem with wrongful convictions in our country. According to “The Innocence Project,” there have been over 250 people exonerated since 1989 thanks to DNA testing. These innocent people were serving time for crimes they did not commit. Even one person who’s wrongfully convicted is one too many. If the true perpetrator of a crime is not charged and convicted, there is no justice for anyone and the criminal is free to commit more crimes.
I used to believe the justice system always worked. In the years since my uncle’s murder, I’ve learned that this is not true. Sometimes mistakes are made. Sometimes there are overzealous prosecutors or law enforcement officials that acquire “tunnel vision” and ignore obvious inconsistencies in a case. We need changes in our justice system. Our public officials need to be held accountable for any mistakes. We need to make sure these mistakes are corrected. The tragedy of a wrongful conviction on top of the tragedy of a murder does not equal justice.
As reported by the Columbia Tribune, Ryan Ferguson was finally afforded a new hearing in April, 2012. It’s my hope, (and the hope of many others), that Ryan is released from prison. I hope that he gets a new trial, or that his conviction is completely vacated. The killer of Kent Heitholt is still out there somewhere. This murderer needs to be found and brought to justice.