Dateline   |  November 15, 2013

'The Wrong Man' part 3

Sentenced to 40 years in prison, Ryan is devastated.  His family and his attorney begin to search for evidence to prove his innocence. Then a letter arrives in the prison mailroom that just might change everything.

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

>>> it had all happened so fast, verdict, but now a convicted

>> 40 years.

>> reporter: life was on hold for his stunned family.

>> the whole thick is just so scary to me that this could actually happen to someone.

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

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

>> reporter: busy from that day forth, trying to prove what was plainly obvious to them, that ryan was innocent. his dad bill was certain there was evidence out there. if only he could find it. one little piece of information could break the whole case.

>> it would make a big difference.

>> reporter: it was after nighttime that bill ferguson wandered through columbia's downtown returning to the area where the murder happened, puzzling out clues. what is there 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: 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 columbia daily tribune . 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. and here was the kind of bingo bill was looking for.

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

>> reporter: she was sure of that.

>> she was absolutely sure.

>> reporter: what's more she told the prosecutor this years earlier before the trial. with that new information, ryan filed an appeal, and his dad was hopeful.

>> we just knew if we could ever get in the courtroom and present the evidence, ryan will be found innocent.

>> reporter: but as the fergusons is were about to find out, for the first but not last time, overturning a murder conviction is a very difficult thing to do. the appeal was denied. that new store free the janitor deemed not credible. but give up? no. even when they ran through their life savings, even when a raft of legal appeals went nowhere.

>> every time they come back and they deny any motion or they deny any appeal, it's just my thought, you've just taken another two or three years of my life for nothing.

>> reporter: and still, nearly four decades to go. 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? just when ryan seemed to be almost out of options altogether, an attorney named kathleen zellner agreed to take a look at the case. she met with ryan . and decided to take it on. pro bono .

>> nothing is as riveting at this, when the trial's been lost, everything's been lost and you've got somebody that's innocent. like the ultimate challenge, i think.

>> reporter: what made you think this person definitely is innocent?

>> it was really ryan . it was really my interaction with him.

>> reporter: zeller in has won the release of 15 men wrongfully convicted of murder and rape, but this? 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: and the verdict rendered by a jury of one's peers carries tremendous weight. it is almost sacred in the legal system . to overturn ryan 's conviction, zellner would have to find new information that the jurors could not have heard or show that the prosecution of the case was not fair. she had just begun investigating when a gift arrived. the sort of thing an attorney can only dream about. it was a letter not to her, to ryan .

>> i get this letter and it's from charles erickson . i'm like what could this possibly say?

>> reporter: oh, now this, this could change everything. just maybe not in the way anyone expected.