How The 'Unlocking The Truth' Host Was Exonerated

Unlocking The Truth host Ryan Ferguson spent his 20s in prison. Now the face of an MTV series about wrongfully convicted individuals, Ferguson served just short of 10 years for the murder and robbery of a Missouri newspaper writer. That ruling was overturned in 2013, according to CBS News. Ferguson and Exoneration Project director Eva Nagao have spent time advocating for prisoners who can only do so much to work towards their own freedom from the inside. It's an uphill battle to force the justice system to recognize and account for its failings. And, as Ferguson would surely tell you, it's not a quick process. So how was Ryan Ferguson exonerated?

To understand how Ferguson was exonerated of the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt, you first have to understand the circumstances under which he was convicted. CBS News reports that Ferguson and his high school classmate and friend Chuck Erickson had been drinking underage at a bar on Halloween night. They left the bar approximately half an hour before Heitholt's co-worker Michael Boyd had a conversation with Heitholt in the Columbia Daily Tribune parking lot around 2 a.m. Heitholt was later found by a janitor, bludgeoned and strangled to death near his car.

Fingerprints, blood, and footprints were all found at the crime scene. None of the forensic evidence could be tied to either teen, according to CBS News. But Heitholt's death and Erickson's inability to remember exactly what happened that night because of his level of inebriation haunted him. A friend who he'd confided in called police and Erickson was brought in for questioning a full two years after the fact. Video of the interviews show a young man who hardly seems confident about his answers and investigators who just want their case solved. "It's you that is on this chopping block ... and I don't want to hear, 'Oh, all the sudden I just think I may be fabricating all of this,'" a detective said to Erickson. Erickson testified in court that he and Ferguson robbed and killed Heitholt for drinking money.

Ferguson never corroborated Erickson's version of the story and concerns were raised by his legal representation about the validity of the statement. When CBS's 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty asked if Erickson's testimony could have possibly been false and coerced, prosecutor Kevin Crane told the reporter that false confessions may happen "on the East Coast," but not in Missouri.

To hardly anyone's surprise but Crane's, false confessions aren't limited to certain parts of the country. According to ABC News, Erickson reached out to Ferguson's lawyer Kathleen Zellner in 2009 to recant his statements about Ferguson's guilt. Even with a videotaped retraction by the prosecution's star witness, Ferguson couldn't get a new hearing until 2012. At that hearing, both Erickson and a Columbia Daily Tribune janitor who claimed to see the young men on the premises admitted that they'd both lied on the stand. Ferguson's lawyers still had to file for one more appeal in order to free their client. ABC News reports that Ferguson's conviction was overturned by a Western District appeals court in November 2013.

Even though Erickson is serving a sentence that was cut down in exchange for his testimony against Ferguson, Ferguson's quest for justice for wrongfully convicted persons includes his old friend. And Erickson is satisfied that Ferguson is no longer behind bars. "It feels good, knowin' that he's out," Erickson told CBS News. "And it's — really feels like my load has been lightened and I hope he's able to do the things he wants to do."

And, as seen in Unlocking the Truth, part of that journey for Ferguson has been making sure no one else face's the same fate he did.