A SECOND CHANCE
A man who lost a decade of his life after a wrongful conviction in a brutal murder case is now helping to exonerate others
A wrongful conviction turned a Missouri man’s world upside down. Find out what finally set him free
He never imagined it could happen to him. “One day out of the blue, I’m driving home from college and a team of unmarked cars pulls up on me,” Ryan Ferguson recalls of the moment in 2004 that his life changed forever. Within minutes, police in his Columbia, Mo., hometown had arrested the then-19year-old after a former high school classmate claimed he and Ryan were responsible for the beating and strangulation of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt on
Halloween night nearly three years earlier. “That,” Ryan tells In Touch, “was the end of my life as I knew it.”
Ryan maintained his innocence from interrogation to trial to prison. Yet he ended up spending nearly 10 years behind bars. “I spent all those years in prison for a crime I had nothing to do with,” Ryan explains. In November 2013, he was finally freed from the maximum security prison where he was serving a 40-year sentence for second-degree murder and robbery. “Ten years was taken from me. My 20s are gone,”
adds Ryan, now 31, who’s teamed up with an Exoneration Project investigator for the new MTV docuseries Unlocking the Truth, which chronicles criminal cases with questionable convictions. “I knew the truth was on my side. I was fighting for my life, my freedom, my sanity, every single day.”
Proving he did not belong in prison was a gargantuan challenge. None of the bloody footprints, fingerprints or other physical evidence at the scene matched Ryan’s, but the prosecution had two
key witnesses: Charles Erickson, a reported drug-abusing former classmate who claimed they had murdered Heitholt together, and Jerry Trump, a janitor who claimed he saw Ryan at the crime scene.
But in 2012, both men recanted their trial testimony in court. They admitted they’d lied and accused authorities of pressuring them into implicating Ryan. Even then, it took 18 months for an appeals court to overturn Ryan’s conviction. ( Erickson, who’s serving a 25-year sentence he got in a plea deal, is currently working with an attorney to try to get his conviction overturned as well.)
Now Ryan is helping others who have been falsely convicted. “I have anger. I will never accept what happened to me,” says Ryan, who lives in Florida with his girlfriend. “But it’s about taking that negative energy, that hate, and turning it into positive action to expose what is going on in our legal system. The 10 years that I lost is meaningless if I can’t go back and help other people.”
— Reporting by Darla Murray
FAILED BY THE SYSTEM “It was incomprehensible that the courts continued to move forward and didn’t want to do the right thing,” Ryan (at an appeals hearing in 2008) tells In Touch. LOCKED UP
Ryan spent most of his time in prison reading and working out. “I was smaller and younger than most guys in there,” he says. “I knew I had to be stronger than most to survive.”
FIGHTING BACK “Prison never leaves you,” says Ryan, who is investigating wrongful conviction cases for MTV’S new docuseries
Unlocking the Truth.