Dateline   |  November 30, 2012

'Under A Killing Moon', Part 4

A new attorney, Kathleen Zellner, starts to investigate Ryan Ferguson’s case. Just a few weeks on the job, an unexpected letter arrives she receives an unexpected letter that has the potential to change everything.

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

>> days in concrete that's a lot of time.

>> reporter: while friends were graduating from college, starting their careers, ryan waited for news from his father's investigation and battled to spare when that new evidence failed to win his freedom. his family had pursued appeal after appeal in attempts to get his conviction overturned, all rejected. bill had found several new witnesses, but all of their stories were deemed not credible. if you have to serve that, you come out a senior citizen if you're still alive.

>> unfortunately. but at the end of the day , you never know what's going to happen.

>> reporter: well, you don't, do you? and, as it turned out, the case was catniped for an attorney named kathleen zellner who looked carefully at ryan 's story and believed. what made you think this person definitely is innocent?

>> it was really ryan . it was really my interaction with him. there was just no sign of any deception.

>> reporter: zellner has won the release of more than a dozen men wrongfully convicted of murder and rape. she was honored just this year with the american bar association 's pursuit of justice award. but this case? she had never seen anything like it because in this strange case, she thought there were two innocent men, ryan and chuck , his accuser. a confused young man, but not a killer.

>> what was put on at this trial was a completely fabricated case. and the reason it worked was because the jury could not understand why someone would confess to a crime they didn't commit and then take a 25-year sentence.

>> reporter: remember, none of the fingerprints, dna, hair, footprints of the scene matched either ryan or chuck . and she saw no evidence at all to back up the theory of a robbery gone bad.

>> ryan ferguson has $20 in his wallet and a credit card . why would he be leaving the bar and attack the biggest guy in town to take a timex watch and his car keys? the reason those items were taken is they've got the killer's prints and probably touched dna on them. that's why the person took them. because it's fighting. it's hand-to-hand combat. it has nothing to do with the robbery.

>> reporter: zellner had just begun building her case, looking for new evidence, alternative suspects, when a gift arrived, the sort of thing an attorney can only dream about. it was a letter, not to her, to ryan ferguson .

>> i get this letter, and it's from charles erickson . i'm, like, what could this possibly say? it basically just says, send an attorney and don't tell anybody that you're doing it.

>> reporter: send an attorney to see him?

>> yeah.

>> reporter: don't tell anybody?

>> yeah, don't tell the media.

>> reporter: what did chuck erickson want with a lawyer? didn't take long to find out. when kathleen and her law partner arrived for their meeting with chuck , he handed them a piece of paper. it was a statement in his own handwriting.

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

>> things happened much differently than i had previously stated.

>> reporter: chuck said he lied, lied about so many things, big and small. but his biggest lie, he said, was the one in which he said ryan was the killer.

>> i made up what i said about ryan being on top of the victim.

>> reporter: no. in this telling, chuck said it was he, not ryan , who turned the robbery mission into a murder. he who stronglied kent heitholt with the belt while ryan stood by.

>> are you saying today that you are the sole murderer of kent heitholt?

>> that's correct, yes.

>> reporter: it must have been a great day for you, i would think.

>> it was but i know how much work it is to undo these things. to me, it was just the first step.

>> reporter: and it was puzzling, too. because zellner was absolutely convinced that neither chuck nor ryan was ever anywhere near the murder. she and ryan believed chuck was still confused.

>> it shows the reality that he doesn't know what happened that night. and he's trying to put these things together.

>> reporter: but was it enough? ryan 's dad, bill ferguson , physically carried the new information to the courthouse. and maybe that day the fergusons' luck turned because the court decided there would be a special hearing at which chuck 's new story and any new evidence collected by ryan 's attorney would be considered. what's your hope this week?

>> this week i hope that the judge will evaluate the information, that they'll exonerate ryan .

>> reporter: in april of 2012 , after 8 years and 33 days behind bars, ryan ferguson , handcuffed and shackled, shuffled into a courtroom. was he prepared? the evening before talking with us, he had been wearing his optimism on his sleeve, like armor.

>> i want to make my life great when i get out, and i'm going to be ready for it. i feel like i've been preparing for eight years to live life.

>>> coming up --

>> i lied and said i remembered things i didn't remember.

>> chuck erickson is back on the stand, but he's not the only one who's changed his story.

>> i'd like to have forgiveness from ryan . and his family.

>> when "dateline" continues.