Last Tuesday morning when inmate #1137593 bent down to tie his shoes, he did not know what the rest of the day would bring.

The inmate’s name was Ryan Ferguson.

Ferguson remained neutral with his emotions because had been through the same scenario before. He was holding back from getting his hopes up that this would be the last day he spent behind bars. Ferguson had served ten-years of a 40-year sentence for a murder he claims he did not commit.   

November 12, 2013, turned out to be Ferguson’s lucky day. Just seven hours later, a composed Ryan Ferguson was surrounded by probing reporters outside the Tiger Hotel in Columba, Missouri. After ten years of being incarcerated for murder, 29-year-old Ryan Ferguson was finally exonerated and set free.

The main question inquiring minds want to know about Ferguson is this:  is he bitter about having a decade of his life snatched away from him? Ferguson was a 20-year-old college student when he was arrested. He spent all of his 20s incarcerated.

Amazingly, Ferguson is more interested in moving forward with his new life on the outside than seeking revenge. He has even forgiven his friend that initially lied about his involvement in the murder. Ryan now wants to start a campaign to free this man.

On Halloween night, 2001, Ferguson and his friend, Charles Erickson went out for a night on the town. They engaged in a night of underage drinking until the bars closed at 1:00 am.  According to Ferguson, Erickson dropped him off at home and he went to sleep. During the wee hours of the morning, Kent Heitholt, a sportswriter for the Columbia Daily Tribune was brutally murdered in the parking lot of his office.  

Approximately two years later, Ferguson was pulled over by police and brought in for extensive interrogation about the Halloween night murder. Ferguson was convicted of the 2001 killing of the local sports editor even though no physical evidence linked him to the scene.

Ferguson’s conviction was based on false testimony from a janitor and his wife who placed Ferguson at the scene of the crime, along with a dream Ferguson’s drinking buddy had two years later that linked Ferguson to the murder.

Even though there was no physical evidence that connected Ferguson to the crime scene, these two testimonies where the final nail in Ferguson’s coffin.

In 2004, Ferguson was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

For more details about Ferguson’s conviction refer to earlier prison law blog post:

If it wasn’t for all of the family support and selfless work of Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson’s defense attorney, he would still be in prison. Bill Ferguson, Ryan’s father spent countless hours relentlessly investigating his son’s case. He made many visits to the crime scene, evaluating what the police may have missed. Mr. Ferguson discovered many discrepancies in the police reports. He set up a website to keep the public updated on the case progress. After numerous attempts to overturn Ryan’s conviction, Mr. Ferguson did not give up.     

In 2009, Kathleen Zellner, an attorney specializing in wrongful convictions took on the daunting task of Ferguson’s case when it was looking terribly bleak. The case had been through so many stages that the odds of getting Ferguson exonerated were close to nil. The percentage of lawyers that would be willing to take the case was also close to nil, especially pro bono. Kathleen Zellner, a civil rights attorney with a reputation as a fighter, stepped up to the plate. She devoted voluminous hours and money to battle for what she felt was just.  

Zellner acknowledged Ferguson’s case was going to be challenging. She started by digging deep into the testimonies.   Forensic experts were hired. The evidence they came up with discredited the fabricated story Erickson originally told police based on his dream.  This was only one of the expenses (paid by Zellner) that eventually amounted to almost one million dollars. Zellner’s team of investigators worked on Mr. Trump, the janitor, who was a key witness until his conscience made him admit to lying on the stand. Zellner won a habeas hearing in April 2012.

At the habeas hearing, Zellner and her team were able to get a confession under cross-examination from William Haws, the prosecution’s investigator, that he never made a report of his interview with Trump’s wife, Barbara. That interview was crucial because Barbara Trump contradicted the story her husband later told at court.

After six long months of waiting for a response from the court, Zellner’s optimistic attitude about her client’s exoneration was crushed. The courts ruled against the evidence she worked so diligently to present. Zellener upheld her reputation as a fighter and convinced Missouri Western District Appellate Court to take another look at Ferguson’s case. Zellner and her team drafted a 154-page petition that methodically took apart the state’s case: the timeline and evidence. 

On Sept. 10, 2013, Zellner’s persistence finally paid off with a victory. A three-judge panel was presented with the case. In an extraordinary 54-page decision, released on Nov. 5, 2013, the court ruled that Ferguson had been denied a fair trial and vacated his convictions!

Last week, Ferguson became Zellner’s 15th wrongfully convicted client to walk out of prison.

Ferguson’s first taste of freedom was a steak and a beer, but he can’t wait to eat at Dairy Queen.

For a young man imprisoned for all of his 20s, Ferguson has an incredible outlook. He spent his time in prison working out and studying. Ferguson contributed to his fellow inmates by teaching them about exercise and nutrition. He even met a girlfriend in prison who fought for his innocence.

Ferguson cannot put into words how extremely grateful he is to his attorney, parents, and girlfriend for their support.  

Ferguson’s ambition is to move forward with his life, free his friend, Chuck Erickson, whom he doesn’t believe belongs in prison, and find the individual who is guilty of murdering Mr. Heitholt.    

Exoneration alone is not enough to correct the damage caused by a wrongful conviction.

Wrongful convictions are a worldwide epidemic. Injustice Anywhere was created to help bring more knowledge and attention to wrongful convictions and to work to bring much-needed reform. We must do more to prevent the unjust imprisonment of innocent people. If we work together we can make a difference.

“To get arrested and to get charged for a crime that you didn’t commit, it’s incredibly easy…but to get out of prison, it takes an army.” – Ryan Ferguson, an hour after his release from prison.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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