Dateline   |  November 15, 2013

'The Wrong Man' part 4

In court, two key witnesses say they were lying when they gave the testimony that sent Ryan to prison. What will a judge say?

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

>>> ryan ferguson had been behind bars for five years. put there after chuck erickson told a tale of murder, said they killed man together one halloween night. this condemning, finger-stabbing accusation in court was the last time ryan had seen or heard a single word from his former friend. so it was a shock the day that letter arrived in the prison mail room from chuck .

>> basically just says, send an attorney and don't tell anyone you're doing it.

>> reporter: send an attorney to him?

>> yeah.

>> reporter: that was in 2009 . as luck would have it kathleen zeller in had just signed on to the case. she went to see him and he handed her a written statement.

>> oh, my god, he's retelling the story but ryan 's not the killer.

>> reporter: he read his new version of events on camera.

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

>> reporter: 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.

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

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

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

>> reporter: did that change everything? not really. the attorney did more research, interviewed other witnesses, filed paperwork. two years went by. and then in the spring of 2012 , a hearing was called. ryan 's dad physically carried boxes of documents into the courthouse. attorney kathleen zellner and her team huddled at a nearby hotel to prepare.

>> ms. zellner?

>> your honor, we're here after many years.

>> reporter: the next morning his lawyer presented several pieces of evidence not heard before, like this story from a girl who saw ryan and chuck drive off at 1:30, just as ryan had always claimed.

>> and did you actually see them drive away ?

>> yes.

>> reporter: but the core of the case was right here, chuck erickson , now face-to-face with ryan for the first time since the trial.

>> his testimony that he made up during the trial took my life, and you know, it's crazy to believe that his testimony now could give my life back.

>> reporter: in that taped statement back in the prison, chuck said quite clearly that he, not ryan , killed kent heitholt. was that the story he would tell today?

>> do you remember killing mr. heitholt?

>> no.

>> reporter: as he spoke it became perfectly clear his story had changed again. now chuck was saying he had no memory at all of what he and ryan did on halloween night. blacked out after drinking too much. and more important, he never did remember.

>> i lied and said i remembered things i didn't remember, and said he did stuff that i don't remember him doing or me doing.

>> reporter: how can he not know? committing or not committing a murder, how can you not know that?

>> that is a very baffling thing to myself and everyone, i think. he was asleep that night, and i dropped him off at home.

>> reporter: so what to make of the change? well, ryan 's side had always believed chuck was innocent, too. his original confession a false one now in court, zellner argued that when he confessed and implicated ryan chuck was a confused young man parroting information an overzealous interrogator fed him. just one example, the murder weapon.

>> he's pulling up on the belt.

>> reporter: so confident during the trial it was a belt, but during his interrogation he seemed to have no idea. so they told him.

>> i know i think it was a shirt or something.

>> i know it wasn't a shirt.

>> maybe a bungee cord or something from his car. i don't see why he'd have a rope in his car.

>> we know for a fact that his belt was ripped off of his pants and he was strangled with a belt.

>> really?

>> did you see something in rye yans's hand maybe a bungee cord ?

>> i don't know.

>> reporter: and when his memory continued to be foggy?

>> you better start thinking very clearly.

>> okay.

>> because it's you that is on this chopping block .

>> reporter: why did you play that little piece of interrogation?

>> because it shows the tremendous pressure he was under. when charles erickson is explaining, i don't have a memory of this. he's like i don't want to hear any of that. you're going to have memory of it. i'm going to tell you what the memory is. he was right in his face.

>> i was blacked out.

>> reporter: now on the stand chuck said he wanted to take it all back.

>> i don't want to die, you know, knowing that i did the wrong thing.

>> reporter: ryan 's attorney knew, of course, that chuck and his ever-evolving story might be hard to believe, so she had one more card ready to play.

>> would you state --

>> reporter: quite literally.

>> jerry trump.

>> reporter: the trump card . remember that night janitor at the newspaper the man who pointed an accusing finger during his 2005 trial, jerry trump?

>> yes.

>> reporter: now zellner asked trump a simple question, how in heaven's name was he able to conclusively identify ryan as the young man he said he saw in a dark unlit parking lot years earlier and here it came. a startling accusation. jerry trump said he was just doing what he thought the prosecutor wanted him to do.

>> he said, we're fairly sure we have the two guys that killed mr. heitholt. and we need you to identify them.

>> reporter: and so trump said he lied.

>> and when you pointed to ryan ferguson in the courtroom and you said, that's the person you saw at the " columbia tribune " parking lot , was that true or false?

>> it was false.

>> so are you testifying with the understanding that by telling this testimony you could be charged with perjury?

>> yes, i am.

>> do you anticipate or want anything for doing this?

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

>> reporter: ryan 's attorney had no further questions. let the emotion hang in the air. and then it was the state's turn. did the assistant attorney general admit an error, send everybody including ryan home?

>> what you will see is the evolving lies.

>> reporter: no, the state stood by the original prosecution, categorically denied jerry trump's claims and challenged chuck erickson on the stand.

>> you're saying you have a willingness to say anything you need to say to get ryan out?

>> at the time i did. do i expect you to believe it? no, i don't expect you to believe it.

>> reporter: who would the judge believe? ryan went back to prison and waited. one month, two, four, six months he counted from his cell. he thought about his grandparents in florida, allowed himself to hope he'd see them soon. and then it was halloween again, 2012 . the 11th anniversary of kent heitholt's murder. a guard came to see ryan . his lawyer was on the phone.

>> they called me back there, you have an attorney phone call . so i figured.

>> reporter: attorney phone call ?

>> yes.

>> reporter: this could be it?

>> this could be it.

>> reporter: right then what was it like?

>> i didn't even really think. i just had to put one foot ahead of the other. and then i got on the phone with my attorney and the first thing she says is i got a bit of bad news. and basically i didn't hear anything after that.