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article imageOp-Ed: Ryan Ferguson’s co-defendant Charles Erickson turns 30 in Prison

By Bruce Fischer     Jul 3, 2014 in Crime
Columbia - Ryan Ferguson's release from prison has given him a new lease on life. His successful appeal has also given hope to his co-defendant Charles Erickson. Unfortunately appeals can often take years.
Last week, Charles Erickson celebrated his 30th birthday with a couple of vending machine cupcakes and a visit from family at the Missouri South Central Correctional Center, where he is currently serving a 30-year prison sentence for the murder of Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt. Erickson and his family have followed the same birthday routine for the past decade. This may seem fitting for a man convicted of murder, but it is quite tragic when you look into the details of Erickson’s case.
Heitholt was brutally murdered in the early hours of November 1, 2001, in Columbia, Missouri. Heitholt was last seen as he left work at around 2:20 a.m. Heitholt was struck from behind in the company parking lot. He sustained multiple head injuries and was strangled with his own belt. His body was discovered next to his car.
Erickson and his friends were attending a Halloween party on the night of the murder. Unfortunately the partying got out of hand, with reports that party-goers, including Erickson, were experimenting with Adderall, cocaine, and alcohol. When the party was broken up by police, Erickson caught a ride with childhood acquaintance Ryan Ferguson to the "By George" bar, which happened to be near the scene of the Heitholt murder. Ferguson then drove Erickson home at around 1:15 a.m., leaving him with no recollection of the night.
In late 2003, Erickson read an article published by the Columbia Tribune discussing the unsolved murder of Kent Heitholt. When browsing through the article, Erickson feared that he resembled a composite sketch released by police. Knowing only that he was at a bar near the scene that night, he worried that he might be involved.
Erickson began telling friends that he had a dream, leading him to think that he and Ferguson may have been involved in the murder. One of the friends that Erickson spoke to made a call to Crimestoppers with a tip, leading police to obtain fingerprints from Erickson and Ferguson. The prints were tested and eliminated as a match for prints collected at the Heitholt murder scene.
Erickson continued to obsess over the case, telling more friends that he thought he may have been involved. His conversations were reported to police, leading Erickson to find himself in an interrogation room trying to answer questions about a murder that he knew nothing about.
During his interrogation, Erickson was initially unaware of any details of the crime that were not already public knowledge, telling police he may have dreamed up his entire involvement. The video of the police interrogation shows Erickson struggling to answer basic questions.
It was clear from the start that Erickson had no recollection of participating in the murder. Erickson was tag-teamed by two detectives that worked to spoon-feed him information about the crime, leading to a false confession implicating himself and Ferguson.
The manipulation of Erickson would only escalate after he was taken into custody. Prosecutor Kevin Crane misled Erickson into thinking Ferguson was going to plea and leave him with a longer prison sentence. Crane even threatened Erickson with the death penalty. Crane also withheld witness statements from Erickson that would have shown him that he was not near the scene at the time of the murder. Those statements would have helped Erickson cope with his confusion about that night, and would have given him reason to question what the authorities were telling him. Crane’s actions led Erickson to accept a reduced sentence in return for his testimony against Ferguson.
Crane was not satisfied with Erickson’s testimony alone. He also worked to secure the testimony of another vulnerable witness named Jerry Trump. Trump worked as a janitor at the Columbia Tribune. Trump testified that he saw Erickson and Ferguson leaving the scene of the crime. He would later recant his statements stating that Crane pressured him to cooperate. Trump was on probation at the time and feared going back to prison.
When it was all said and done, Erickson was given a 25-year sentence for second degree murder, in return for his testimony implicating Ferguson. Ferguson was hit with a 40-year sentence. Erickson would later find out the truth. Ferguson was never going to testify against him. It was all a ploy by Prosecutor Crane to secure convictions in a high-profile case.
After years of failed appeals, Ryan Ferguson was finally granted a habeas corpus hearing in April of 2012, based on both of the prosecution’s star witnesses providing affidavits recanting their testimony. Ferguson's high profile attorney Kathleen Zellner presented powerful arguments in front of Judge Daniel Green at the habeas hearing, detailing multiple Brady violations committed by the prosecutor. In addition, both key prosecution witnesses, Charles Erickson and Jerry Trump, both took the stand, testifying under oath that they deliberately lied at trial in order to benefit the prosecution.
Shockingly, Zellner’s arguments were rejected by Judge Green, leaving many of Ferguson’s supporters to wonder if Green was attempting to protect the reputation of Crane, who had now become a judge. Ferguson appealed Green’s ruling to the Western District Appellate Court of Appeals, resulting in a unanimous decision to overturn his conviction. Ferguson was released in November of 2013, when the State quickly realized they had no grounds to retry him for the crime.
Ferguson recently filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking $100 million for damages for his wrongful incarceration. Erickson remains in prison but Ferguson’s release has given him hope that he too will be given the opportunity to overturn his wrongful conviction.
Support for Charles Erickson has grown exponentially since Ferguson’s release. He is now being represented by Attorney Laura O'Sullivan, a professor at University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law, and Senior Counsel with the Midwest Innocence Project. As his new legal team works diligently on preparing his appeal, public support continues to grow, as seen on his Facebook page. Erickson also has strong support from his family. His mother Marianne recently completed a swimathon to help raise money for her son’s defense fund, swimming over 30,000 yards, in return for pledged donations. Family and supporters are hopeful that this will be the last birthday Charles Erickson has to spend behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
Please visit to learn more about this case.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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