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

In Touch (USA) - - Front Page -

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.

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