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

Ryan Ferguson during his April 2012 interview with Dateline.

By Anthony Galloway

Supervising Producer, NBC News

Kansas City, Mo. – Ryan Ferguson’s father was the first to take note of the fact that his son’s appeal hearing was being held just a block away from where Ferguson was first questioned in the 2001 Halloween night murder of newspaperman Kent Heitholt. At stake is his son’s freedom. His fate is now in the hands of three appeals court judges who will decide whether to overturn Ferguson’s conviction and possibly release him from prison.

Looking across the intersection in the direction of the Kansas City Police Department headquarters building, Bill Ferguson reflected on what the past 10 years have been like since his son’s arrest. Time has passed sometimes swiftly, sometimes painfully slow, but always moderated by his hope that justice would eventually reveal the truth.

Ferguson was convicted of second degree murder and first degree robbery after a friend told police in Columbia, Mo. that they both took part in killing Heitholt, the sports editor, in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune after two o’clock in the morning. Ferguson does not dispute he was drinking underage at a college bar with his friend, Charles Erickson, in the vicinity of the newspaper office that night. However, he has steadfastly denied that he had any involvement in the murder and has 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.

In a posting on Facebook, dictated by phone from prison, Ryan Ferguson described the hearing as “the most important day” of his life. “The remainder of my existence is to be decided at some point in the following weeks based upon these culminating events,” he wrote.

Ferguson’s appeal centers on the new testimony of two key witnesses who testified against him at trial in 2005 – Erickson, who pleaded guilty to second degree murder, first degree robbery and agreed to be a witness for the prosecution, and a night custodian, Jerry Trump, who identified Ferguson as one of the young men he saw in the parking lot that night.

Both men have now recanted their stories, admitting to a lower court judge in 2012 that they lied on the stand during Ferguson’s trial. There is 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.

In a Halloween day decision last year, the lower court rejected Ferguson’s petition to have his conviction overturned, leading Ferguson’s legal team to file their latest appeal.

Bill Ferguson is currently driving cross country spreading the word about his son's case. Here he is in Tulsa, OK.

In September, attorney Kathleen Zellner and her law partner, Doug Johnson, appeared in Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals intent on righting what they see as a certain wrong. Zellner argued that Ferguson deserved to have his conviction overturned, not only because both Erickson and Trump have now recanted their testimony, but also because the prosecutor withheld information from Ferguson’s original defense team. The judges zeroed in on one alleged lapse – an undisclosed pre-trial interview with Jerry Trump’s wife which could have helped the defense debunk Trump’s testimony at trial.

The assistant attorney general, Shaun Mackelprang, conceded that it was a possibility the meeting had not been disclosed but said, even if it had happened, the withholding was “immaterial.” Mackelprang said the defense’s claim did not provide evidence of Ferguson’s actual innocence, despite Erickson and Trump’s admissions.

In less than an hour, the judges retreated to their chambers and took the case under consideration.

Outside of the courthouse, after answering questions from reporters, Bill Ferguson took the wheel of his Toyota Camry and started the first leg of a cross-country tour to raise awareness about his son’s case. Ferguson’s car has an image of his son shrink-wrapped on both sides, along with his website address freeryanferguson.com.

During the first minutes of his drive through downtown Kansas City, accompanied by a reporter, Ferguson held out hope that he would return from his journey to pick up his son from prison.

“My understanding is if the justices rule in his favor, at that point then we can apply for bail,” Ferguson said. “That could be when I come back from California. I could drive straight through, down to the prison, and pick him up.”

Nearly 12 years have passed since the Halloween murder. During that time the victim’s family has denied most requests for interviews, quietly supporting the prosecution and endorsing Ferguson’s conviction. Although Ferguson still has 30 years left to serve, his family is optimistic that he’ll be free by this Halloween, a ghoulish date that has become a recurring theme in Ferguson’s saga.

Surrounded by supporters, in the shadow of the police building where Ryan Ferguson was first detained 10 years ago, Ferguson’s mother, Leslie, reflected on the long road the family has traveled to get to this point. “You keep thinking, okay, next month, next year. You’re never thinking something is going to take years.”

Reacting to the tone of questioning by the judges, Mrs. Ferguson said, “It sounds very positive and it sounds like they’re going to rule in Ryan’s favor.”

It is the unwavering support of his family, and of supporters who drove from as far away as St. Louis to bear witness inside the courtroom, that Ryan Ferguson says has allowed him to persevere each day since his arrest on a sunny spring afternoon in Kansas City.

“It goes without saying, that I'm about as nervous as one could possibly be without having a breakdown, but this difficult tension has been radically eased by the countless messages of support I've had the pleasure of having read to me,” he wrote in the Facebook post.

“Thank you so much for joining us on this day and taking an active role in righting an obvious wrong. As I sit alone in my cell tonight, waiting to hear the news, I know I'll feel greatly comforted in the fact that, in all reality, I couldn't be further from being alone.”