Dateline   |  November 30, 2012

'Under A Killing Moon', Part 3

Ryan Ferguson stands trial for the Halloween murder in the newspaper parking lot. His former friend, Chuck Erickson, testifies against him and an eyewitness identifies him as the culprit. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s family works to prove his innocence.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> it was almost halloween again. the third since the full moon murder of kent heitholt in the newspaper parking lot . waiting to be tried for murder. based on what his old buddy claimed was a memory recovered in a dream, a bizarre sort of you didn't know what you had done?

>> absolutely not. absolutely not.

>> reporter: you're pretty sure of that memory of yours.

>> absolutely. no doubt in my -- i know exactly what i did that night.

>> reporter: it was the trial of the decade in columbia, missouri. but only ryan was on trial. chuck erickson copped a plea in e e ex-change for a reduced sentence of 25 years. in court he presented himself as a young man in such pain, he repressed his traumatic memory for more than two years.

>> it was hard after dealing with it by myself and not thinking about it for two years, and then i'm sitting down here, and it's all just rushing at me. my god, i killed this man.

>> reporter: or at least he said he assaulted kent heitholt, hit him with a tire tool from ryan 's car, intended just to rob him for drink money and head back to the bar. then he reenacted what ryan did once he was helpless and on the ground.

>> he was on his back. and he was pulling up on his belt like this.

>> i don't know.

>> reporter: any flicker of the hesitance he displayed during his interrogation was gone, replaced with righteous conviction.

>> i've got to go to prison for the rest of my life. i've got to tell them what that man did.

>> reporter: the prosecutor didn't present dna or fingerprint evidence linking him to the scene but perhaps he didn't have to because he had chuck, and he had this man. his name --

>> jerry trump.

>> reporter: you might want to remember that name. jerry trump is one of the janitors who called 911 the night of the murder, the man who reported seeing two young men lurking near the victim's car.

>> they were close to 6 feet, thin.

>> reporter: now, in court.

>> would you point to that individual or individuals, please.

>> yes.

>> reporter: fingered by an eyewitness, accused by a former friend. ryan pleaded with the jury, don't believe a word of it.

>> did you go to "the tribune" parking lot ?

>> no.

>> did you see kent heitholt anywhere?

>> no.

>> did you have any contact with kent heitholt whatsoever?

>> no.

>> did you participate in this murder?

>> no.

>> reporter: the accusation, said ryan , was plain crazy. not a shred of physical evidence put him there. the bloody if the prints were not his size. and police didn't find any trace of blood in his car. the whole trial, a huge mistake. he was innocent.

>> i never thought i'd be arrested for a crime i didn't commit. would you? would you believe you'd be arrested for a crime you didn't commit?

>> i didn't commit one.

>> neither did i.

>> reporter: ryan 's supporters in the courtroom clearly believed him, but the jury? it was a friday evening when they left the court, and that same friday evening when they came back.

>> as to count 1, we the jury find defendant ryan william ferguson guilty of murder in the second-degree.

>> reporter: guilty of murder and robbery. he was sentenced to 40 years. kent heitholt's daughter was relieved.

>> i don't want people to remember he was a murder victim, and i'm glad that finally i can remember him as just my dad and someone that was loved by everyone.

>> reporter: heitholt's paper put the story to bed perhaps for good, but it was a struggle, of course, for ryan 's family. convicted murderer, son and brother. and kelly, the indulgent sister who sneaked him into a bar, wrestled with debilitating remorse.

>> of course, i feel very guilty because not only was he down there because of me, but i also got him into a bar underage. it just looks really bad.

>> you almost feel like you're stepping back from yourself.

>> yeah.

>> and you're watching other people, yourselves, going through this because it can't really be your life. it can't be you going through this.

>> reporter: how do you get over a thing like that?

>> you don't get over it. you get busy. that's what we do. we're not over it. we're just busy.

>> reporter: the ferguson family, especially father, bill, went on radio, tv, anywhere people would listen to insist that ryan was not a murderer.

>> our son's innocent, and we just want to free him as soon as possible.

>> reporter: but more than that, bill decided there must be somewhere evidence to the contrary if only he could find it. one little piece of information could break the whole thing?

>> oh, it could make a big difference.

>> reporter: it was often nighttime when bill ferguson wandered through columbia's downtown, returning to the neighborhood where the murder happened, puzzling out clues. what is it about this place that tells you your son didn't do it?

>> well, it's not so much this place, it's what happened at this place. the bar closed at 1:30.

>> reporter: didn't the jury notice the time didn't add up, bill wondered? why would ryan and chuck commit a murder and robbery after 2:00 a.m . to go back to a bar that had been closed for an hour? and there was something else that kept nagging at bill, that 911 call the night of the murder.

>> we need someone here at "the daily tribune."

>> reporter: only the male janitor identified ryan . what about the woman on the 911 tape? she testified, too, but on the stand she wasn't asked to point out ryan .

>> i became very suspicious. i'm saying wait a second. she's the witness.

>> reporter: bill tracked her down, brought her back here to the very place she was standing the night of the murder.

>> and i said, so the person you saw, the person you did the composite of, was that ryan ferguson ? she goes, no, that was not. i go, was it chuck erickson? no, it was not.

>> reporter: shefgs sure of that?

>> she was absolutely sure.

>> reporter: bill thought this was a huge discovery, and he started gathering other new evidence, too. but would it be enough to convince a judge his son deserved a new trial? as bill was about to find out, once a jury has found a person guilty of murder, undoing that verdict can seem, can be close to impossible.

>> but no one in this case was about to give up. least of all, ryan and his family. when we come back, a new defense team and a new twist. a letter that might change everything.

>> my eyes were just racing because i thought oh, my god, he's retelling the story, but now ryan 's not the killer.

>> when "under a killing moon"