After nine years, eight months and two days of wrongful imprisonment, Ryan Ferguson was released from prison Nov. 12, 2013. Convicted in 2005 for the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, Ferguson spent the better half of his 20s serving what could have been a 40-year sentence. The conviction was overturned in the appellate court, ruling that prosecutors withheld evidence in the trial, after which Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced he would not retry Ferguson.
Before his arrest in 2004 and the national recognition that came with it, Ryan Ferguson was a student at RBHS. He cared about sports, his friends and family; he had hoped for a future in college and in Columbia.
“Ryan’s always been very laid back,” mother Leslie Ferguson said. “He liked hanging out with his friends, just a very social person. It seems so long ago, high school, it’s hard to even remember those days.”
With hopes of attending the University of Missouri–Columbia and possibly working with his father who is a real estate agent, Ryan spent his high school years as a free-spirited teenager.
“Rock Bridge, to me, was a fantastic place,” Ryan said. “I loved it. It’s one of the last things I remember before I went to prison. It’s a good time of life, right? At a young age, you’re carefree. You have no responsibilities, and everyone wants to live life and have fun, and that’s what we did. I feel like I experienced life, and I loved every second of it.
However, the carefree years were abruptly stripped short when, soon after his graduation from RBHS in 2003 and his acceptance into college in Kansas City, the Columbia Police Department arrested Ryan based on the testimony of high school friend and alleged accomplice Charles Erickson.
As for placing blame, Ryan said he abides by the structure of the Serenity Prayer, which encourages acceptance for matters that cannot be changed. Understanding the situation and learning to accept it and seek justice are the best ways to handle these kinds of situations, he said. Without a sense of realistic expectations and basic comprehension of people’s actions, he said, one is left to wallow in his misery.
“The only way you can get through life and be happy is to understand as much as you can about it,” Ryan said. “And that’s understanding other people primarily, how events are going to impact people and how society acts in general. And you can’t hold particular individuals accountable because you know [some people are] going to be ignorant.”
After five days of evidence presentations from the prosecution, the jury deliberated for hours and came back with a guilty verdict, convicting Ryan on one count 2nd-Degree murder and one count robbery in 2005. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison, to be served at the Jefferson City Correctional Facility in Jefferson City, Mo.
Instead of growing into adulthood with his friends and family, Ryan spent his early 20s in jail, an all-consuming confinement, he said, both physically and mentally. Serving nearly two years in county jail for the duration of the trial and then being transferred to the maximum security prison in Jefferson City, Ryan began his transition into prison life.
“Jail and prison are two different things,” Ryan said. “County jail was a year and a half, almost two years. You go to prison, and people are actually happy to go to prison because they would be able to formulate some sort of lifestyle, you can ... actually get into a routine, whereas in county jail you’re just there. You’re locked in a cage with some pretty indecent human beings, to say the least; you don’t get any contact visits with your family. You only get once a week, behind glass, if you’re lucky, for an hour. It’s unfathomable. You don’t think that in our society people would be treated that way, especially if you’re innocent until proven guilty, right?”
“Prison is depriving,” Leslie said. “They play mind games on you and you have no control of your life and you’re pretty worthless in their eyes and you’re constantly being beaten down. You kind of lose your individuality, so I think he has to gain all that back, and I have no doubt he will. But people have to be patient with him, and he needs to be super patient with himself and value that it was an experience, and he has a lot of memories, not all of them very good, but still you have to validate those because that’s a part of who he is now.”
Though his prison days are behind him, Ryan’s decade-long imprisonment inevitably formed a controlled lifestyle, the habits and schedule of which are not so easily forgotten. In prison, there exists no individuality or choices; even now, habit has already made every decision for him. Ryan doesn’t turn off the lights at home because he never had to turn off a light in prison, Leslie said, and that’s how his life was and it will take time to readjust.
“People ask me, you know, ‘how was prison? what was it like?’” Ryan said. “They're asking me to put into a sentence what a decade of my life was. You do live for 10 years and things do change. Prison, it’s a terrible place, but at least you can get into a rhythm and know what’s coming the next day and know that, maybe, I can get up and go tutor for two hours, and then I’ll be able to go and make my phone call, and then I’ll be able to go workout, and that will be the day. And then you go wake up and do it again. And again. And again. And so you go into this institutional life, knowing that any second it could be taken away from you. You could go to the hole, [known as solitary confinement], or something like that for something that’s equivalent to a speeding ticket here.”
For nearly a decade, Ryan had to find a way to survive while imprisoned. Never knowing full-well how long he would have, Ryan created an everyday routine, helping others with things like obtaining GEDs and maintaining a strict diet for himself. This helped him get through the day-to-day, rather than focusing on the possibility that he could be in the same situation until the end of his sentence, at the age of 59.
“In prison there’s always going to be those individuals who are phenomenal pieces of crap,” Ryan said. “You meet a lot of people, many of which are just terrible people who did terrible things. But then there are those who are good people who did terrible things who are five, 10, 20 years displaced from what they've done, who have done great things with their lives ever since. So there is a good community when you find it. So now, I think about those guys because that’s all I knew for a decade; these are my friends. We got up, and they dealt with what I dealt with every day. They dealt with the same administration, the same lack of food and the same frustrations.”
While maintaining a livable routine in prison, Ryan was also looking toward the future, despite the disappointments he and his family faced in the appellate court. Chicago lawyer Kathleen Zellner stayed hopeful throughout the appeals process, maintaining that eventually, the truth would prevail. She kept up this hope, even after the devastating April 2012 evidentiary hearing in which Ryan unsuccessfully appealed for a new trial, citing perjury and prosecutorial misconduct. During the hearing, witnesses Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump admitted to lying under oath and Jerry Trump further claimed prosecutor Kevin Crane coerced him into lying.
“Each time you lose when you thought you were going to win, it gets harder and harder to recover from that,” Zellner said. “So it’s difficult to keep your spirits up. He’s very fortunate in a way that many inmates are not, in that he has such a strong family presence in his life. I mean, they are just amazing. You know, you couldn’t survive if you just let this whole thing take over you … he’s just a very strong person mentally.”
Resilience was the only road that eventually led Ryan to his release and reunion with his awaiting family. The only way to bounce back in these kinds of situations, Ryan said, was mental strength.
After nine years in prison as a convicted murderer, Ferguson hugs his mother at a news conference Nov. 12, 2013, one week after the appellate court overturned his conviction.
“I am a very pragmatic human being, I think,” Ryan said. “People say I am too much so, that I can’t really enjoy life because I have to be very realistic as to what’s going on. And in that, I always knew, OK, they denied one appeal. I knew the next 12 to 18 months of my life were gone, so what am I going to do in that time period. I lost years of my life for that, and [for them to think that its fair] ... it’s bulls---.”
Leslie says her time with her son was always upbeat and positive, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their visits. Mutual support helped them down the long road, and relying on family was only natural.
“I always loved going to visit him,” Leslie said. “He didn’t tell us everything that was going on because he knew that we would worry about things. You would think that he’d be depressed and down-and-out, but he always tried to put on his best face for us. I would always leave there laughing and feeling really good.”
However, laughter and hope could only go so far when faced with outright denials time after time. Leslie remembers the evidentiary hearing verdict as one of the hardest moments of his incarceration period for the family. With all physical evidence pointing away from Ryan and the defense highlighting the testimony of the witnesses as perjury, the verdict was seemingly pointing toward the approval of a new trial.
“I think we should have won that last appeal, and when we didn’t, I think that was one of the lowest times,” Leslie said. “When all [the evidence] proved that Ryan had nothing to do with it and that it wasn’t a fair trial, and then to have Judge Green turn it down, we thought, ‘what else would it take?’ There is nothing left to use to prove Ryan was there.”
After years of recantations and denied appeals, while watching his friends get married and obtain college degrees, Ryan admits to a sense of resentment and often anger toward the legal system. He says, however, he refuses to let these frustrations control his life, especially now that he is physically free. Staying angry, he says, is redundant, and the only way to seek justice and get past this nightmarish phase of his life is to make sense of the situation and benefit from, or at least help others to.
“Really, negativity will lead you nowhere in life,” Ryan said. “I’m p---ed off. But what’s it going to do if I run around p---ed off. You won’t make a difference or help anyone else. Sure, I could go … run around cussing, but there are so many legal avenues to be taken. I believe 100 percent in accountability. And I believe that with a positive attitude, once you get accountability, you can stop the flow of innocent people going to prison. See what it took to get one out? So if you don’t have that perspective and you just get mad, and you’re just like, ‘Screw them, eff this and that. People are pieces of s---,’ then you don’t use that as an opportunity to grow and to teach other people.”
Ryan said this attitude will be best maintained outside of Columbia in light of events at Hickman High School. Administrators recently denied Ryan the opportunity to visit HHS and let the journalism students interview him. Because of occurrences like this, Ryan believes a relatively fresh start would help pave a more opportune path for his future and his girlfriend’s, and he plans to relocate to Florida in the near future. In the face of the chaos surrounding his life, he found a way to generally accept the situation, not allowing the wrongdoings against him to desiccate his sense of hopefulness and the will to exonerate his name.
“I think that we were always hopeful. Always,” Leslie said. “We knew Ryan was innocent. When you have truth on your side, you know you’re fighting the good fight –the fight that is right.”
Ryan Ferguson holds up a sign reading, “It Is Over,” shown to him earlier by his attorney, Kathleen Zellner.
The 2012 evidentiary hearing and recent Nov. 2013 appellate court decision that overturned Ryan’s conviction on the basis that Crane, in a Brady violation, withheld evidence from the defense, uncovered that the Ferguson case was riddled with perjured testimony and questionable prosecutorial methods. After all of this, Ryan, now a free man with the rest of his life ahead of him, firmly grasps the only gifts prison may have given him: his perspective and his health.
While incarcerated, Ryan stumbled upon the idea to write a book. The novel is not a memoir about his imprisonment, but rather a book that highlights the importance of good nutrition and exercise, weaving his struggle with personal health in prison together with what he has learned about maintaining a balanced diet.
“I have taken the negative energy of hate and turned it into positive action, I think,” Ryan said. “All that anger and that frustration, you can choose how you want it to come out. For a while I just let it come out in pure depression, not getting anything accomplished, not moving forward in my life, not learning anything, getting out of shape, smoking cigarettes, ate whatever came my way and I was miserable. But I took that hate and I said, ‘okay, I can make a positive change. I’ll be able to take control of my life [nutritionally]’ ... because I really had no control [otherwise]. Do what you can do to make your life better. Do what you can do to prove your innocence. You can hopefully one day do what you can do to educate and help other people. At least that’s what I told myself.”
With the national attention the media drew to this case and the thousands of supporters of his release throughout the country, Ryan hopes to finish his second book, which will dive into his struggles as a man wrongfully convicted, serving as the more expected autobiography. With all the attention his story has received, reacclimating into civilian life has been an emotional challenge.
“The thing that bothered me most with the media recently,” Ryan said, “was an article someone wrote about me wanting fame and that I’m going out and taking pictures with people, acting like a celebrity. Yeah, you could be a d--- and say ‘no, screw you, I went through so much I don’t want to take pictures with you, I’m famous.’ But obviously I don’t feel that way. Most of the people who have come up to me have actually, you know, written the governor or told their friend about it, and they've helped. And I wouldn’t be here without their help. So for me to not take a moment to shake their hand and say hello, and at least acknowledge them like they have acknowledged my family and myself, what would that make me? A terrible person. They’ve helped me get my life back ... But as far as I’m concerned I have all the time in the world for them. And, to see that they’re using that and turning it into something negative? … it broke my heart. It really did.”
Particularly excited about his nutrition book, Ryan is confident in his future and what it has to bring. With the backing from his family, his girlfriend and his supporters across the country, Ryan firmly believes this is only one chapter in his life and is already making plans to start on another, despite his very recent release date.
“Working out changed my life. I hope to take any opportunity that runs my way [and] work with it,” Ryan said. “If there aren’t any [opportunities] in the end, I’m gonna f---ing make my own. [As for the press], I want people to see what’s going on [in our legal system]. I want them to understand that this is not an anomaly; these things happen. Somebody, right now is getting royally screwed. And I feel like it’s my responsibility to help stop that flow somehow.”
By Hagar Gov-Ari
Photos by Nick Schnelle/Columbia Daily Tribune