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OVERTURNED: Appeals court throws out Ryan Ferguson murder conviction

"The undisclosed evidence renders Ferguson's verdict not worthy of confidence."  Would retrying Ryan be a career-ending move? 


COLUMBIA, Mo 11/5/13 (Beat Byte) -- Longtime Columbia residents Ryan Ferguson and his family have something momentous to celebrate this Thanksgiving:  the beginning of the end of a 13-year ordeal that saw Ferguson and another man tried and convicted for the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports columnist Kent Heitholt.

The Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District overturned Ferguson's conviction this morning.  "Ferguson's convictions are vacated," the Justices wrote.  "Ferguson is ordered discharged from the State's custody."

Prosecutors have 15 days to file a notice of retrial.   But virtually all prosecutors are aiming for higher elected office.  Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, for instance, is running for Governor in 2016.  The man who originally prosecuted Ferguson, Kevin Crane, went on to run successfully for a Boone County Judgeship.  

Meanwhile, Ferguson has become a folk hero around the nation.  Today's appellate court victory will only heighten his appeal (no pun intended).   The decision to retry him, therefore, will have inescapable political implications. 

But even if prosecutors file for a retrial, the long list of courtroom debacles that have accompanied the case -- from the testimony recantations of the two key prosecution witnesses to allegations of prosecutorial misconduct -- make it unlikely Ferguson would be convicted again. 
 
The bad publicity alone has likely tainted any jury pool. 

Entitled In Re:  Ryan Ferguson vs. Dave Dormire, Superintendent of the Jefferson City, the appellate case considered two claims:  that Ferguson was denied due process; and that withheld evidence from the wife of prosecution witness Jerry Trump gave the three appellate Justices reason to believe either another trial is in order or freedom awaits. 

"We conclude that Ferguson has established the gateway of cause and prejudice, permitting review of his procedurally defaulted claim that the State violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) by withholding material, favorable evidence of an interview with Barbara Trump, the wife of Jerry Trump, one of the State's key witnesses at trial.

"The undisclosed evidence was favorable because it impeached Jerry Trump's explanation for his ability to identify Ferguson."
 
Justices Gary Witt, Joseph Ellis, and Cynthia Martin considered "the cumulative effect of the nondisclosure with other information the State did not disclose." 
 
With due respect to Heitholt and his family, they ultimately found the "undisclosed evidence renders Ferguson's verdict not worthy of confidence

"We are aware that by vacating Ferguson's criminal conviction, we have erased any measure of comfort that Mr. Heitholt's family and friends may have drawn from the belief that a person responsible for his senseless and brutal murder has been brought to justice." 

The cause against the penal institution was simple enough:  Ferguson was actually suing the prison, asking the court to release him from being wrongfully held there.  

And while the Justices didn't consider the recantations of Jerry Trump and Chuck Erickson, convicted with Ferguson of the crimes but who testified against him, they did make a special note of all the inconsistencies. 

"The lack of confidence in Ferguson's conviction caused by the State's material Brady violation is only enhanced by the existence of newly discovered evidence," the Justices wrote. 

Prosecutors have until just a few days before Thanksgiving to decided whether or not to haul Ryan Ferguson back before a jury.   Voters, meanwhile, now have their chance to be heard.  

Will retrying Ryan, American Folk Hero, be a career-ending move?  
 
Or will Mr. Ferguson, held for 10 years, finally go free?   The Justices are clear on the next steps. 
 
"If the State does not file a written election to retry Ferguson within fifteen days of the issuance of our mandate, then Ferguson shall be immediately and unconditionally discharged from the State's custody." 


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