Dateline | November 15, 2013
>>> ryan ferguson walked prison hallways with a lighter step after his lawyers presented what he believed was a compelling case for overturning his murder conviction.
>> ryan ferguson is actually innocent.
>> reporter: and then months later, he was called to the prison phone and kathleen zellner broke the news. the appeal was denied. time once again stood still.
>> devastating really because everything that you care about, everything you believed in, everything you love has been taken from you for no reason.
>> a judge has denied convicted killer ryan ferguson a new trial.
>> reporter: and in the same way he found out his son had been arrested for murder, bill ferguson learned ryan 's fate from a reporter.
>> and she says, i just want to know if you want to make a comment on judge green's ruling. and i'm thinking, what? what ruling? and she goes, well, you know, he just -- oh, my god, you don't know, do you? i don't know. and --
>> finally i got hold of my dad. and he was trying to hold it together, but even his voice cracked, you know. and that was the worst sound i've ever heard in my life. it was the most difficult thing i ever heard.
>> reporter: and then you were locked down?
>> yeah. just at that moment you feel so empty and so alone and hopeless, you know.
>> reporter: and why? in his ruling, the judge said chuck erickson was completely fabricating the stories he told at the hearing, and while the judge did believe jerry trump, he said that his lie was immaterial, not enough to overturn the guilty verdict. is there any point when you thought this ain't going to happen?
>> after the witnesses recanted and the court said it wasn't enough, i got very concerned. so i felt like it was a life and death situation.
>> reporter: one more legal maneuver to try, a habeas petition filed in a higher court, the missouri court of appeals . zellner knew it was a long shot. the vast majority of these fail.
>> he was at the end of the road , last gasp. it was almost over for him.
>> reporter: so she did it, filed the paperwork. 154 pages of it. and waited. and inside the state prison , ryan ferguson had learned not to expect anything. are you allowing yourself to imagine, you know, next week, next month, next year what i'll do on the outside?
>> that's a long way away right now.
>> reporter: but outside the walls far away from the courts and the virtual world , something funny was happening. support for ryan was growing. friends and family and complete strangers from around the world were posting messages and photos demanding free ryan ferguson . an online petition to free him gathered signatures by the thousands. then, just this past september, a glimmer of hope. ryan had been granted a hearing.
>> the honorable court of appeals .
>> reporter: his lawyer had just 15 minutes to tell ryan 's story to a panel of three judges about the witnesses who said they lied, the mistakes by the prosecution, and the crime scene that told a tale of innocence.
>> mr. ferguson and mr. erickson were excluded from the physical evidence.
>> is this a big day for you?
>> a big day for us, a big day for ryan .
>> reporter: this time ryan 's dad decided he wasn't going to sit around and wait for the judges to rule. he set off on a road trip to share his unshakable faith in his son.
>> and they found the dna did not match him at all.
>> reporter: in a car emblazoned with his son's face and those same two words "free ryan county then one cold november morning the fergusons learned it was decision day. no courtroom this time. the news came in the most moderate of way, hovering over a computer screen , bill and leslie together, logged on to the appeals court website.
>> we were doing the same thing, refresh, refresh. then it flashed up on the screen and just for a split second i saw " ryan ".