Dateline | November 15, 2013
>>> ryan ferguson 's parents huddled over the computer, couldn't quite get the webpage to settle down.
>> seemed like an eternity. bring it up, bring it up, where is it?
>> reporter: then suddenly here it was. and it was stunning. the news for the first time in their family's decade-long saga was good, as good as good could be.
>> it was amazing. amazing to read that.
>> reporter: ryan ferguson 's conviction was thrown out by the court. citing a pattern of evidence withheld by the prosecution, ferguson's conviction, said the judges, all the judges, is not a verdict worthy of either judicial or public confidence.
>> we've been thinking about it and dreaming about it for 9 1/2 years.
>> reporter: in prison ryan got word to call his attorney kathleen zellner.
>> man, i'm just trying not to have a heart attack.
>> reporter: she told him the court had overturned his guilty verdict . what feeling comes over you when you hear that?
>> it was just pure relief. and that's all i could feel at that moment was just, you know, thank goodness this is finally over.
>> reporter: but of course, it wasn't completely over. doesn't work that way. ry ryan 's conviction was thrown out but the way the law works, the prosecutor could rearrest him, charge him with murder and try him again. until the prosecutor decided whether to charge him or not, ryan had to stay in prison and wait. here he was no longer a felon but still behind bars . come on, sit down, let's talk. while he waited, we waited with him. the state's decision, let him go or not, was due this very day, tuesday, any minute, any hour.
>> on a high one minute, then you're just really fearful the next minute. it's a roller coaster really.
>> reporter: we posed for pictures, joked around a bit. like the guns. ryan , knowing that any second now the decision might come down, and then our allotted time was up. they led him back to his cell and not much more than an hour later, this, from a one-sentence press release, the attorney general's office will not retry or pursue further action against ryan ferguson at this time.
>> it was unbelievable.
>> reporter: kathleen zellner rushed to the prison, but they were separated by glass. she wasn't allowed in to talk to him. and he didn't know. she scribbled over a piece of blue paper, held it up to the window. "it is over."
>> he was transformed as a person just in those few seconds.
>> reporter: ryan 's parents arrived to scoop him up and take him home, but were prevented from entering the prison grounds.
>> i told you never believe anything until ryan is actually in the car.
>> reporter: but was it really finally over? inside the prison where ryan had put on street clothes, he was abruptly told take them off. they put him back in the orange jumpsuit and shackles, loaded him in the van, drove him to the boone county jail.
>> i felt like this is beyond belief this is happening.
>> reporter: ryan , terrified, feared he was to be arrested again.
>> nobody knew what they were doing. i think everyone was trying to do the right thing, but everyone was worried about procedure.
>> reporter: eventually the authorities straightened things out and it happened, it ended, 12 years and 12 days after that halloween moon. it was truly and finally over. ryan rode to freedom in the ryanmobile, the car his father had driven all around the country to bring attention to his cause. in just a few hours, ryan had come out of the prison cell and now confronted the packed hall and came off like a practiced politician.
>> thank you.
>> reporter: aware that others weren't so lucky.
>> to get charged with a crime you didn't commit is incredibly easy and you can lose your life very fast, but to get out of prison it takes an army, as you can see. an incredible group of individuals, family, friends.
>> reporter: by his side, his girlfriend, his mother and his father bill, without whom none of this ever could have or would have happened.
>> you know, i just have the most amazing family. i love you guys so much.
>> reporter: his sister who helped the little brother sneak into the bar 12 years ago was away, couldn't be here. until suddenly, there she was. and the world class lawyer --
>> this is how i knew.
>> reporter: who, recognizing an injustice, offered to work for free.
>> i knew he was innocent. so my firm spent over 3,000 hours, hired experts and spent a million dollars. it was the best million dollars i ever spent. ever. it was great. we'd do it again.
>> reporter: there is still unfinished business in this story. the family of kent heitholt may have fewer answers now than ten years ago, and calls the latest developments painful. the fergusons have offered a $10,000 reward for tips in the case.
>> we hope the heitholt family will get the information they need to move forward in their lives.
>> reporter: ryan 's family also vowed to help free chuck erickson, the man whose testimony put him behind bars in first place. but for the moment, ryan has some adjusting to do. freedom is sweet.
>> the pillows are really big and fluffy, i'm not used to that.
>> reporter: but as everyone knows, it isn't always straightforward.
>> since this morning i started getting stressed out about a few things which is kind of strange to me because, you know.
>> reporter: stressed out about what?
>> i don't know. it's a whole different life. it's a whole lot to get used to. you got to figure out your way around this world. because i know what to do in prison. i know where to be and when to do things. out here it's a completely different environment. and i got to find my way essentially.
>> reporter: one more thing to do. as he launched his brand new life. visit the grandparents in florida he feared he'd never see again.
>> this is so strange.
>> reporter: and so we arranged this.
>> oh, my god.
>> how's it going? i love you.
>> i love you, man, how you been?
>> i'm fine.
>> oh, good. hug mom.
>> it's been a long time, hasn't it?
>> too long.
>> let me look at you.
>> reporter: and then this morning the sun rose over the sea. and ryan ferguson breathed in the ocean air, felt the world open around him, touched his feet to the warm sand. and life began anew.
>> to freedom. a great family.
>>> that's all for this edition of "dateline." we'll be back again wednesday at 10:00 , 9:00 central. and i'll see you tomorrow on "today." i'm lester holt . for all of us at nbc news, good night.