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Appeals court vacates murder conviction in Ryan Ferguson case

4:47

An appeals court Tuesday vacated the murder conviction of a Missouri man nearly a decade into a 40-year prison sentence for the 2001 Halloween night killing of a newspaper editor.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled that prosecutors withheld key evidence from defense attorneys in the trial of Ryan Ferguson, who was 19 when Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was found strangled in the newspaper's parking lot.

"Under the facts and circumstances of this case, we conclude that Ferguson did not receive a fair trial," Judge Cynthia Martin wrote in a summary of her decision. "His verdict is not worthy of confidence."

Ferguson, who was convicted in 2005 of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery, has been profiled by several national television programs, including NBC's "Dateline."

At a Tuesday afternoon news conference, Kathleen Zellner, Ferguson’s attorney, read a statement she said was written by her client.

“We have won a major battle,” Ferguson said, according to Zellner. “However, the war continues. I need your help now more than ever. (I) look forward to sitting at the Thanksgiving table with my family, if justice permits.”

Zellner said Ferguson’s legal team filed a bond motion Tuesday afternoon, adding that the state now has seven days to object to that motion.

“The ball’s in their court now,” Zellner said. “They can abandon all this or they can continue on.”

At the news conference, Ferguson’s father, Bill, said his son was “elated” by the appeals panel’s decision — but he emphasized that his son is still not free.

Ferguson was found guilty after a friend told police in Columbia, Mo., that they both took part in killing Heitholt.

Convicted murder defendant Ryan Ferguson listens to Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce deliver his opening statements in the Cole County Division I courtroom, Monday, April 16. Columbia Daily Tribune via AP file

Ferguson has not disputed he was drinking under the legal age at a nearby bar with that friend, Charles Erickson, near the newspaper office Oct. 31, 2001. However, he has repeatedly denied that he had any involvement in the murder and had fought to overturn his conviction since that time.

“What he said about being at the crime scene, me being at the crime scene, was all false,” Ferguson told Dateline in a 2012 interview.

Erickson, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree robbery, and a night custodian, Jerry Trump, who identified Ferguson as one of the young men he saw in the parking lot that night, both testified against Ferguson in 2005.

And yet both men have since recanted their accounts, admitting to a lower court judge in 2012 that they lied on the stand during Ferguson’s trial. There was no physical evidence tying Ferguson to the crime scene and neither the fingerprints nor strands of hair found at the scene match Ferguson or Erickson.

The appeals court said Tuesday that prosecutors should have shared key evidence — an interview with the custodian's wife — that would have raised questions about his ability to identify Ferguson.

"The undisclosed interview was material, resulting in a verdict that is not worthy of confidence," Martin wrote.

The Western District court ordered that Ferguson be released if prosecutors have not filed notice of a retrial within 15 days, according to the court document. It was not immediately clear Tuesday if state prosecutors would object to his release or move to retry him.

Anthony Galloway of NBC News contributed to this report.

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Ryan Ferguson awaits appeals court decision, 'nervous' but comforted by supporters' messages