The Nation's Pulse

Justice Is Blind

But it shouldn’t be deaf: a Missouri story.

By 11.14.13

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May 19th, 1901

My Dear Margaret,

Here it is summertime, and the bees are blooming and the flowers are singing and the birds making honey, and we haven’t been fishing yet.

Well, there’s only one more month till July, and then we’ll go, and no mistake.

I thought you would write and tell me about the high water around Pittsburg some time ago, and whether it came up to where you live, or not.

And I haven’t heard a thing about Easter, and about the rabbit’s eggs—but I suppose you have learned by this time that eggs grow on egg plants and are not laid by rabbits.

(Letter from O. Henry in prison, to his daughter Margaret, who thought he was away on business.) 

The long-running website, FreeRyanFerguson.com, was mooted Tuesday night into history. For the past nine years, Ferguson’s family had striven mightily to secure his release from Missouri state prison, after he was convicted of a murder against all the physical evidence at the scene. Last week, the state Appeals Court finally moved to vacate his conviction, based on the misconduct of the prosecutors failing to disclose to the defense key exonerative evidence. Now the Attorney General of Missouri has decided not to retry the case, and Ryan Ferguson is finally a free man.

It all began with a spectacular killing on the night of Halloween, 2001. Kent Heitholt was the sports editor of the local newspaper in Columbia, Missouri, a job that calls for late hours as reports of the night’s games are hastily assembled for our consumption with the morning coffee. Heitholt signed out around 2 a.m. and headed for his car in the parking lot. He was murdered there by two assailants who walked off with a cheap watch and the car keys. Presumably they intended to take the vehicle but when two janitors left the building and approached them, the men sauntered off on foot, telling the workers there was a man on the ground needing help.

Heitholt’s body was found surrounded by a cornucopia of clues. He was clutching a bloody hair, there was blood on the ground besides the victim’s, and there even were fingerprints. Not only that, two sets of bloody shoeprints marked the escape route of the killers who left on foot.

Some years later a young man began to have dreams about the murder. His friends tipped the police, who brought him in for a bizarre interrogation. The full tape is available online and it provides a clinic into how false confessions can be elicited by alternately coaxing and coercing. At the outset, he has no idea of the most pertinent details in the case. As the night wears on, police dribble the facts into their questions and are rewarded by his eventually regurgitating them back as his own ideas.

This man, Chuck Erickson, identified Ryan Ferguson as the initiator and leader of the event. Police went and checked the hair and blood — no match on either Erickson or Ferguson! They checked the size of the shoes in the prints — no match on either one! They checked with the female janitor who got a good look at the men — no match on either one! So, naturally, they prosecuted.

Erickson made a deal for less time and he testified with great precision to all the nuances he had not known before the police interview. The male janitor, an alcoholic with a criminal record, who initially said he had not gotten a good look at the men, now offered positive identification. The jury needed only a few hours to convict.

Since then both witnesses have renounced their testimony in open court. This is believed to be the first time in American history that all the witnesses recanted in official court proceedings, yet the conviction was upheld and the jail term continued. Impartial observers across the world have condemned this as a miscarriage of justice, yet the courts held fast until last week’s appeals court decree. Kathleen Zellner, who won fame by achieving the DNA exonerations of several Death Row inmates from Illinois, worked this case diligently.

This sort of nonsense is a blight on law enforcement in our country. There have now been so many famous cases of false confessions, yet the officers involved are neither terminated nor chastised. The most prominent case to capture the public imagination was the Central Park Jogger, Trisha Meili, who was raped in April 1989. Five young black men were convicted after confessing to a night of “wilding” which culminated in the attack. Every New Yorker, myself at the time included, believed in their guilt without question.

DNA later showed the semen in her body matched none of those men, belonging instead to serial rapist Matias Reyes. The confessions, now reexamined, had been the result of grueling multi-hour high-pressure interrogations, and were shot through with contradictory information. The men were released but New York City police have never admitted wrongdoing, and the city is still fighting suits by the men for malicious prosecution.

The Fourth and Fifth Amendments are no less important to the Constitution than the First and Second, protecting our rights as free citizens. It is time for this kind of law enforcement abuse to stop. We love our lawmen but we encourage them to fight only for truth, justice and the American Way.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.