JEFFERSON CITY, MO (KTVI) - A young Missouri man is just weeks, maybe even days, away from finding out if he will get a new trial for a murder that he and many others say he did not commit. Ryan Ferguson, 29, has spent nearly a decade in prison for the murder of a newspaper sports editor in Columbia, Missouri, but there is no physical evidence linking him to the crime.
This is not how Ryan Ferguson imagined he'd be spending his twenties. In 2004 he was just your average college student. "I was planning on going into real estate with his dad, I was going to go to the University of Missouri, get a business degree," said Ryan.
But his life didn't exactly work out that way. Ferguson has spent nearly a decade locked up at the Jefferson City Correctional Center for a murder he says he had nothing to do with. He could soon be looking at freedom, as the case against him continues to unravel, and an appeals court is deciding if he will get a new trial.
"It sounds better than it ever has before, they pointed out a pattern of events where the prosecution concealed evidence from us, the fact they acknowledge that was huge."
Ferguson and his friend Chuck Erickson were arrested for the strangulation death of newspaper sports editor Kent Heitholt. It happened Halloween night 2001 as Heitholt left work at the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Erickson, who had a history of substance abuse, confessed to the crime and implicated Ferguson. But watching the video of his police interrogation it's clear he knew nothing about the crime.
When asked about the murder weapon, Erickson couldn't tell police what it was. The detective also did something no seasoned investigator would do, he actually gave him the details of the crime. He told him the victim was strangled with his own belt.
The belt was never recovered, only the buckle. But plenty of forensic evidence was, including hair, blood, fingerprints and footprints. The problem is, none of the DNA matches Erickson or Ferguson.
"Even with that, they choose not to acknowledge that, even though the facts show we have nothing to do with this crime," said Ferguson.
The only evidence linking Ferguson to the murder was the testimony of Erickson and a janitor who said he saw Ryan in the parking lot the night of the murder. That was enough to convict Ferguson, who got 40 years. In a plea deal, Erickson was sentenced to 25 years. Four years after the trial, Erickson said he made it all up.
"I regret that I put an innocent man through that. He didn't deserve it," said Erickson under oath while giving a deposition.
The janitor, Jerry Trump, also recanted his testimony under oath saying he was coached by the prosecution. He now faces possible perjury charges.
"He could go to prison for 30 years, if he's able to come forward and tell the world he lied. I have nothing but respect for the man," said Ferguson.
Ryan's case has garnered national, even international attention. He has a facebook page with tens of thousands of supporters and an online petition with some 240,000 calling for a new trial. All the work of a very supportive family.
"It's almost like watching your child fall in a river and drown and there's nothing you can do about it," said Bill Ferguson, Ryan's father.
Ryan's father recently drove 9,000 miles cross country in a specially wrapped car with Ryan's face on it to call attention to his son's case. He also put up a billboard offering $10,000 in reward money and a composite sketch of two suspected eye witnesses who could be the key to proving Ryan's innocence.
If Ryan is denied a new trial, those witnesses could be the only hope for his freedom.
"I always find myself getting excited and then beating myself back down. We've been dealing with this system for some time. Got to get hope for the best and expect the worst," said Ryan.
DNA samples were never taken from the last person to see Kent Heitholt alive, another newspaper employee who told police he and Heitholt left work at the same time, just minutes before Heitholt was murdered.
Heitholt's family is not commenting about the case. The prosecutor is also declining to comment while the case is up for appeal.
If you have any tips in the case, you can call the Ryan Ferguson hotline at 573-268-6458.