December 6, 2010
Confession of star witness in
slaying also goes on trial
On the fourth day of his trial for a notorious murder, Ryan Ferguson sat on the witness stand. He had spent the previous night — his 21st birthday — in the county jail.
past few days, he had tried to project calmness even while his high-school
classmate and alleged accomplice described for the jury how
But now he defended himself.
“I never thought I would be arrested for a crime I didn’t commit,” he told the prosecutor. “Would you believe you’d be arrested for a crime you didn’t commit?”
“I didn’t commit one,” the prosecutor shot back.
But the judge didn’t appreciate it, quickly silencing the crowd.
And the jury didn’t believe it.
of factors came into play for the 12 men and women — eight of whom later
agreed to be interviewed — brought in from a rural county for the weeklong
trial. They came to view
after the trial, as jurors recalled those problems, seven of the eight jurors
interviewed remained convinced of
Some people — including a leading national expert — say they think they know. But the explanation would be as strange as the case itself.
The much-publicized Halloween-night 2001 murder of the Tribune editor, Kent Heitholt, had been a distant memory until Erickson began claiming that he was recovering memories he had repressed for more than two years.
Erickson’s evolving confession,
Erickson had pleaded guilty in November 2004 to second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and armed criminal action. He would later be sentenced to 25 years in prison.
14, 2005, jury selection began in
In jury selection, during a discussion of the presumption of innocence, one man said: “They just don’t pick a person off of a street, just an innocent person. … So I got to believe there could be just a smidgeon of guilt.”
He became Juror No. 1.
“You will see from the evidence,” Rogers told the jury in his opening statement, “that Chuck Erickson, when he was questioned by the police on March 10, wanted to be reassured that it was just a dream and that he really didn’t do anything. But, instead, you will see him be berated, coerced, cajoled, and taught what the police wanted him to say.”
Crane, the prosecutor, acknowledged to the jurors that, in statements to
police, Erickson had seemed unsure and could not remember some details. But,
he told them, “the essence of this homicide was there.” The core facts —
Erickson beating Kent Heitholt and
style proved a stark contrast to
interviews this year with eight jurors, a pattern emerged when discussing the
Nichols acknowledged getting forceful with Erickson as an interrogation tactic — an area in which he had been trained.
didn’t tell him, ‘We want to find out what you know,’ ”
“Sure,” Nichols answered. “I went at that line of questioning. And I will not deny that.”
other piece of evidence that
prison serving a sentence for five counts of endangering the welfare of a
child, he had seen the photos accompanying the newspaper story about the
the trial, Trump pointed out
In a recent interview, Trump said he stood by his identification but had serious doubts that the two men he saw had killed Heitholt. Why did one of the men step forward and say, “Someone’s hurt out here, man”? Why did they walk off casually?
“I don’t think I could have ever sat in a jury room and say that these guys were definitely the ones that did kill him,” Trump said recently. “I don’t think this one’s solved.”
janitor, Shawna Ornt, also saw the pictures in the newspaper, but she came to
a different conclusion. She testified at a 2008 hearing that she could say
with certainty that
testified that he drove Erickson home, then went back to his house, where he
sat on a curb outside and talked on the phone so he would not wake his
parents. His cell phone records showed a series of calls from 1:41 a.m. to
2:10 a.m. — about the time Heitholt was walking onto the Tribune parking lot.
(One friend confirmed in court that she talked to
witness was psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who had testified frequently about
false memories. Her research had brought her to the attention of the
After reviewing Erickson’s videotaped interviews and the related police reports, Loftus determined that newspaper articles and suggestive police interviews may have provided Erickson with details that he used to construct a memory.
In interviews with jurors, however, it became clear that most viewed Loftus’ testimony as basically irrelevant. Most jurors already believed that repression — if it occurred at all — did not happen the way Erickson described it.
Some thought Erickson had always remembered the murder on some level and had come forward when his guilty conscience became overwhelming. Many were convinced by the level of detail in Erickson’s testimony. A few jurors said they were aware of inconsistencies in and lack of supporting evidence for parts of Erickson’s testimony. But, as one put it, “I just felt that he wouldn’t have pled guilty if he didn’t do it.”
the jury about five hours to convict
At 9:42 p.m., the judge read the verdict: guilty of murder in the second degree, guilty of robbery in the first degree.
About two hours later, after hearing more testimony, the jury recommended sentences of 30 years for the murder charge and 10 years for the robbery charge.
juror, who had not previously spoken publicly about his experience, said in
an interview that he was never convinced
probably should have been the lone holdout,” the juror said. “I don’t know
that he (
He said he was not sure why he voted “guilty,” even though, in his mind, it was a 50-50 decision — maybe because all the other jurors seemed so sure Ferguson was guilty, he added, or maybe even because it was late on a Friday and everyone seemed ready to go home.
Since the verdict, research into false confessions has continued as they have emerged as a more common contributing factor in wrongful convictions than once believed.
Studying proven instances of false confessions, researchers have grouped them into three categories. The strangest and least common of these is the “persuaded” or “internalized” false confession. In these cases, the suspect becomes convinced, often during a long and intense interrogation, that he must have committed the crime even though he has no memory of doing it.
It is this category into which Richard Leo, one of the nation’s leading experts on false confessions, believes Erickson’s confession belongs.
After reviewing transcripts, reports and videos from the case, Leo testified at a 2008 hearing that Erickson exhibited many of the classic signs of a persuaded false confessor. During the police interrogations, Leo testified, Erickson appeared to be trying to guess the correct crime facts; he was convinced he committed the crime but could not remember the details. Police repeatedly fed Erickson details, contaminating his confession, Leo said.
The distinguishing characteristic of Erickson’s confession, Leo said in a recent interview, was that Erickson entered the police interrogation already thinking he may have committed the murder. In persuaded false confession cases, it usually takes hours of intense interrogation to get the suspect to doubt his own memory, at which point the police typically suggest some version of a repressed memory theory. Erickson, it seems, had already reached this stage on his own.
“This is a very unique case,” Leo said. “A different police department might have just dismissed him (Erickson) and said: ‘Come on, until you can tell me some really unique details, I’m not going to take this seriously. You may have mental health issues.’ ”
22, 2009, Erickson looked into a video camera and delivered a statement that
set off a string of court filings and gave the
“Things happened much differently than I had previously stated,” Erickson said.
“I did not tell Ryan what I was going to do,” he said. “He had no idea that I would act in such an aggressive manner. … He could not stop me, though he tried at the end.”
the statement to
Looking through the evidence and past filings in the case, she recalled in an interview, she saw police who had made “a more blatant effort to coerce a confession” than in most cases she had encountered. The prosecutor’s office, she said, at best had pieced together a shaky case around a witness who was simply unworthy of belief.
Ultimately, she saw a man she was “100 percent certain” was innocent, sitting in prison.
after Zellner decided to take
reversal by Erickson, who declined to be interviewed for this article,
probably will be a key point in the habeas corpus petition that
Asked what he would say if he could talk to Erickson, he says: “I’d say: ‘Be honest. Just sincerely look into your heart, look at the facts, try to understand yourself, and try to organize your thoughts on what you think happened and what reality is.’ ”
He has just come from his volunteer job tutoring other inmates trying to earn a GED. He is teaching himself to play guitar (there are two that are shared by about 270 men, he says), and he works out daily (“You can’t tell with these clothes on,” he says, laughing and tugging at his baggy prison-issue shirt). He hopes to finish his degree when he gets out.
Every statement about a possible exoneration and future plans is preceded by “when” — not “if” — he gets out. But he says he’s also a realistic person. “It might be two or three more years, but that’s all right,” he says. “I can’t make it go faster.”
was halfway through pronouncing a 40-year sentence for
“Mr. Ferguson would like to address the court,” he said.
“I really just wanted to say that today is a sad day,” he said, “because the justice system has failed not only my family and I, but the Heitholts and the community. It has failed because they’re sending an innocent man to jail. Because they’re letting a horrible person run free, without a care. … But someday the truth will come out and everyone will see that I am innocent, and I will be free. And that will be a great day, because on that day the justice system will finally have done justice.”
Hamby, a staff writer at The Center for Public Integrity, graduated from the
University of Missouri-Columbia with a master’s degree in journalism. Hamby
wrote his master’s project on the