There's a Reason This Guy is Smiling

A Columbia, Mo. man jailed for the last eight years for a robbery and murder he didn't commit was released from custody Tuesday night. The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District has cleared Ryan Ferguson of his December 2005 convictions for first-degree robbery and second-degree homicide stemming from Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Ken Heitholt's murder in 2001. The sentence was originally set for 40 years, but the state says it will not pursue further action.

Heitholt was leaving work when he was beaten in the Tribune's parking lot, but fingers weren't pointed at Ferguson for four years, when his childhood friend Chuck Erikson told police the two of them had killed the Tribune editor. Erickson later recanted and said he couldn't remember what happened that night. He's still in prison.

The 29-year-old's vocal proclamations of his innocence sparked a seven-year-long movement for his freedom — pushed along by his lawyer, Kathryn Zellner, and heralded by his father, who went on nationwide press tours to garner attention for his son's case. "To get arrested and charged with a crime you didn't commit — it's incredibly easy, and you can lose your life incredibly fast," Ferguson said. "To get out of prison, it takes an army."

Over the last eight years, two witnesses recanted, and a lack of physical evidence kept skeptics wondering if Ferguson had indeed committed the crimes. After a series of appeals, Ferguson was exonerated because of what's known in legalese as a Brady violation: During Ferguson's trial, the prosecution's leader failed to give information to the defense.

The Appeals Court gave the state a 15-day window beginning Nov. 5 to decide whether they would retry Ferguson or not. After the court decided against a retrial, Ferguson was free to go. His dad picked him up from the Boone County Jail in a car with Ferguson's face on the side.

"I know what it is to be a teenager, I don't know what it is to be an adult in the real world, as nearly a 30-year-old," Ferguson said. "I look forward to finding myself out and learning what it is I enjoy and what I love about life and finding what my passion is and acting on it."

But he's not the only one wrongly serving time. "There are more innocent people in prison, so keep your eyes open and support them as well," Ferguson said, before leaving the Tiger Hotel to go enjoy a steak and beer.

Thanks to groups like the Innocence Project which work to free those wrongfully imprisoned, more cases like Ferguson's could be overturned. The Innocence Project's history of advocating DNA tests has led to 255 overturned convictions at last count, although 3,000 prisoners write to the organization each year for help.

(Image: Freed Ryan Ferguson public group/Facebook)