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Illinois Attorney Kathleen Zellner Wins New Hearing for Wrongfully Convicted Missouri Man

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Today’s post does not involve trusts or estates, but instead highlights the tremendous work of a prominent local Illinois attorney, Kathleen Zellner.  Oak Brook-based Zellner represents Ryan Ferguson, a Missouri man who was convicted in 2005 for the 2001 murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor, Kent Heitholt.  Zellner was admitted pro hac vice (for this case only) in Missouri in 2010 for the purpose of representing Ferguson pro bono in the appeal of his 2005 murder conviction.  The most recent appeal is a Writ of Habeas Corpus petition that will be heard for oral arguments on September 10th by Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals.

In her career, Zellner has won freedom through post-conviction appeals for 13 individuals, the most for any attorney in private practice in the country.  We often hear about the misdeeds of attorneys, but don’t hear often enough about attorneys like Zellner who help restore faith in the legal profession through the pursuit of justice.

The Murder and Investigation

The entire history of this Kafkaesque case is too lengthy (and bizarre) to recount in full detail here.  In brief, Heitholt was bludgeoned and strangled to death on Halloween eve 2001 in the parking lot of his newspaper’s downtown offices in Columbia, Missouri.  The murder was prominent in the community, yet the case went unsolved for more than two years until an anonymous ‘tip’ in 2004 led police to interrogate a troubled local teen, Charles Erickson.  Following a highly questionable (to say the least) and suggestive police interrogation in which Erickson was spoon fed the crime details that he didn’t know from press coverage, Erickson ‘confessed’ to the murder while implicating a friend he was with that night, Ryan Ferguson.
 

Ryan’s Trial

In the sensational murder trial that followed in 2005, Ferguson was convicted of second-degree murder based entirely on the testimony of Erickson, who had previously taken a plea deal with a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against Ferguson, and an eyewitness identification by one of the newspaper’s janitors, Jerry Trump.  There was a plethora of physical evidence at the scene, but none of it matched Ferguson (or Erickson).  There was nothing tying Ferguson to the crime scene or murder except for the strange, inconsistent testimony of Erickson and the positive in-court identification from Trump.  Ferguson took the stand in his own defense, telling the jury the same consistent facts that he had told investigators throughout his ordeal.  Nonetheless, the jury was swayed by Erickson’s “confession” and plea deal, and coupled with Trump’s identification convicted Ferguson and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

The Aftermath and Witness Recantations

In the years that have followed, Ryan’s father Bill Ferguson has led a relentless effort to uncover the facts to exonerate his son.  After losing several appeals, in an April 2012 Habeas Corpus hearing both Erickson and Trump finally admitted that they had lied at trial.  Erickson admitted that he had blacked out that night after a drug and alcohol binge and never had any memory of being involved in the murder.  Trump, who at the time of the trial was out on parole for an unrelated crime, admitted that he had committed perjury at the trial by identifying Ferguson as the person he saw at the scene only after feeling pressured by the prosecutor.

Recent Appeal Denied

Most assumed that this new explosive testimony recanting all of the ‘evidence’ presented against Ferguson at trial, coupled with new evidence pointing to another suspect, would have been more than sufficient for the judge to overturn the conviction.  Astonishingly though, on Halloween 2012 the judge denied Ferguson’s appeal.  That decision is now under review by the appeals court and is the subject of the upcoming court hearings.

I’ve followed this case very closely for years after seeing multiple episodes highlighting the case on both Dateline NBC and CBS’ 48 Hours.  There is also a major documentary currently in production directed by MTV’s Andrew Jenks.  A wealth of information about the case is available on the Free Ryan Ferguson website and Facebook page.  A change.org petition started by Ryan’s father has nearly 100,000 signatures.

This case highlights the extreme difficulty in overturning even obvious wrongful convictions.  Hopefully the appeals court will elevate Ryan’s clear actual innocence over procedural matters, and after losing most of his 20’s for a crime he had nothing to do with, Ferguson will win his freedom and become exoneree number 14 for Kathleen Zellner.