Columbia, Mo. – A Missouri man freed Tuesday after his murder conviction was overturned thanked what he described as "an army" of supporters who backed his claims of innocence through nearly a decade behind bars for the death of a newspaper sports editor.
Ryan Ferguson was released after the Missouri attorney general decided Tuesday not to retry him for the 2001 slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt. His release came one week after a state appeals court panel overturned Ferguson's conviction, saying the prosecutor's office withheld evidence from Ferguson's attorneys and he didn't get a fair trial.
Ferguson's case gained national attention because his high school classmate, Chuck Erickson, claimed to have recalled through dreams years after the fact that he and Ferguson had killed Heitholt during a late-night robbery after a Halloween of partying. Erickson has since recanted his testimony but is still in prison.
Ferguson, 29, rode to freedom from the Boone County jail in the backseat of his father's car -- a black sedan emblazoned with a large photo of Ferguson and the words "Wrongfully Convicted. Time for Justice. FREE RYAN."
He then traveled to a news conference that resembled an election night watch party, with dozens of jubilant supporters awaiting his arrival on stage at a hotel ballroom. Ferguson, wearing blue jeans and a gray sweater over a white-collared shirt, walked into the room with a big smile and raised his arms in victory in front of a bank of TV cameras. A woman in the audience yelled, "We love you!"
"I feel like Jay Leno," Ferguson said.
He thanked the family, attorneys, what he described as his few remaining high school friends and his many new supporters for backing his quest for freedom.
"To get arrested and to get charged for a crime you didn't commit is incredibly easy, and you lose your life very fast," Ferguson said. "But to get out of prison, it takes an army."
Ferguson was a 17-year-old high school junior at the time of Heitholt's slaying. He was convicted in 2005 and had been serving a 40-year sentence for murder and robbery.
Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson. At that trial, Erickson said Ferguson had suggested they rob someone to get money for alcohol and that Erickson had hit Heitholt with a metal tire tool before Ferguson had strangled him Heitholt's belt.
But during a 2012 court hearing, Erickson said he had been a heavy drug and alcohol user with hazy memories and had originally been persuaded by police and media accounts into believing he was guilty. Erickson said he no longer was sure of his own involvement and was adamant that Ferguson did not do it.
A panel of the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals later overturned his conviction.
Ferguson expressed sympathy Tuesday for Heitholt's family, saying "they've been lied to" by law enforcement authorities who pursued the case against him. He said Erickson had been "used and manipulated" by police and prosecutors.
"I kind of feel sorry for the guy. I know that he's been victimized -- he's an innocent man in prison," Ferguson said.
There was no physical evidence linking Ferguson or Erickson to Heitholt's death. Former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump was the only witness to testify to seeing Ferguson and Erickson in the newspaper parking lot the night of the slaying. Trump also recanted his testimony during the 2012 court hearing. But Ferguson's freedom ultimately hinged on the way authorities conducted their investigation.
Last week's appeals court ruling said an investigator in the Boone County prosecutor's office should have shared details about an interview he had with Trump's wife that would have raised questions about Trump's account. The appeals panel cited that as part of a pattern in which prosecutors failed to disclose evidence to Ferguson's attorneys.
Court documents filed by his attorney said Ferguson plans to live with his mother in Columbia and hopes to work for his father, who is a real estate broker. Ferguson said Tuesday that he has nearly finished writing a book about his experiences.
"Being in prison for a crime you didn't commit, you start to lose trust in society and humanity," he said. "But through those people (who supported him), I was able to realize there really are a lot of incredible human beings out there."
Many in the crowd at Ferguson's news conference had never met him but were drawn to his cause by his father's relentless efforts to free him, a social media campaign and national TV news reports.
Margie Kunz, 45, of rural California, Mo., wore a "Free Ryan Ferguson" bracelet on her right wrist. She said that after seeing media reports about Ferguson's case, she befriended his family and contributed $500 to their quest to free him.
"I just became convinced that he was innocent -- that's when I started getting on Facebook and getting involved," Kunz said.