Dateline   |  November 15, 2013

'The Wrong Man' part 2

Ryan Ferguson finds himself on trial for murder, even though no physical evidence links him to the crime. What would a jury do?

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

>> solid leadin the kent heitholt murder. and now there was this kid, so they'd been told, who knew the whole story, chapter an verse.

>> let's go over this one more time.

>> reporter: he brought chuck erickson in for questioning but in the chair he went all vague on them.

>> it's so foggy.

>> reporter: so was he backing out?

>> i could just be sitting here fabricating all of it and not know. and i don't.

>> reporter: during a long conversation chuck seemed to remember a whole lot of things, detailed things.

>> did you see blood coming from him?

>> yeah.

>> the motive, he said, was robbery, money to buy more drinks back at the bar.

>> reporter: was this at closing time ?

>> no, this was before that.

>> it made perfect sense a fair skinned teenager out drinking just a few blocks from the newspaper. but remember the custodians saw two young men in the parking lot and the police tracked two sets of bloody footprints. and so here it was, the moment ryan ferguson 's fate was sealed.

>> reporter: i remember seeing ryan hovering over this guy, and i think i asked him if he's dead. and ryan said, yes, he's dead.

>> things began happening very, very fast. ryan , remember, was at college, was living in a different town and was puzzled, he said, when a strange van followed him home from school. it was when he pulled up to his door that he was surrounded by police. what happened when you got to the police department ?

>> reporter: they tell me they're arresting me on suspicion of a murder. and at that point i'm just like, oh, my goodness, this is absurd.

>> they asked about that halloween, and ryan told detectives he left the bar with chuck at closing time 1:30 a.m ., then dropped chuck off at his house, went home and went to bed.

>> reporter: i knew that i had nothing to do with this crime whatsoever.

>> but even as he sat here in an interrogation room denying he had anything to do with the murder, the news of his arrest was on tv.

>> reporter: there is a big break tonight in the murder of former " columbia tribune " sports editor kent heitholt.

>> ryan 's father got the news from a reporter and a friend watching tv called leslie.

>> reporter: my first reaction was just -- i said, well, it's not our ryan . it has to be another ryan ferguson .

>> impossible, not sweet, loving, lovable ryan , not a violent bone in that boy's body said his father bill.

>> reporter: he just didn't have that sort of a mentality. and so all of a sudden for him to be accused of a heinous murder is beyond comprehension.

>> you have the right to remain silent.

>> but just like that ryan ferguson slipped from carefree college student to the town's most heinous murder suspect and still he failed to understand what was in store. as he waited eagerly for his trial, convinced a jury would see that he was telling the truth and chuck was clearly confused. isn't it possible that you did have enough to drink that you repressed your own memories, that you just -- you're in a fog, you didn't know what you'd done?

>> reporter: absolutely not. absolutely not.

>> pretty sure of that memory of yours?

>> reporter: absolutely. no doubt in my mind. i know exactly what i did that night.

>> chuck 's fate was determined quickly. he took a plea deal, 25 years in exchange for agreeing to testify against ryan . and that's what he did. at ryan 's trial in 2005 , chuck re-enacted what he said they did to poor kent heitholt. hit him on the head with a tool from ryan 's car, then ryan strangled him with a belt.

>> reporter: he had his foot on his back, on the victim's back, and he was pulling up on the belt like this.

>> the prosecutor didn't present dna or fingerprint evidence linking ryan to the bloody scene but perhaps he didn't have to because he had chuck .

>> reporter: i got to tell them what that man did.

>> and he had this man. his name --

>> reporter: jerry trump.

>> 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.

>> reporter: do you remember any kind of description at all on these guys?

>> i don't think -- they were close to 6 feet.

>> at the time of the killing, trump told police he wasn't sure he'd be able to pick out a suspect, but now in court his memory had improved.

>> reporter: would you point to that individual or individuals please?

>> yes.

>> ryan took the stand in his own defense, a ringing and determined denial.

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

>> no.

>> did you see kent heitholt anywhere?

>> no.

>> did you participate in this murder?

>> no.

>> how could a jury believe otherwise, he thought. there was evidence at the crime scene , after all. footprints, fingerprints, the hair in the victim's hand and none of it matched ryan . it was a friday evening when the jury went out. and that same friday evening when they came back, a brisk preweekend deliberation.

>> reporter: we the jury find the defendant, ryan william ferguson , guilty of murder of the second degree.

>> he didn't show much on the outside but now finally he understood what had happened to him. the sentence was 40 years. and the heitholts felt they were getting that thing people liked to call closure.

>> reporter: i'm glad that finally i can remember him as just my dad and someone that was loved by everyone.

>> kent heitholt's paper the "tribune" put the story to bed, perhaps for good.

>> reporter: i think everybody will feel some relief now that it's over.

>> but ryan 's family felt the polar opposite of relief. the indulgent sister who sneaked him into the bar wrestled with debilitating remorse.

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

>> and ryan 's parents slipped into a world in which life did not make sense at all.

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

>> yeah.

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