by Erin Moriarty, 2010 Jennings Fellow
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution “… a general grant of jury trial for serious offenses is a fundamental right, essential for preventing miscarriages of justice and for assuring that fair trials are provided for all defendants,”
Duncan v. Louisiana (1968).
The promise of a fair trial is not uniquely American – like much of American judicial procedure, it was inherited from the English – but Americans have embraced it as their essential right. The Sixth Amendment guarantees jury trials in federal cases; through the Fourteenth Amendment the right has been applied to trials of serious crimes brought in state court. Yet what happens when mistakes are made at a criminal trial, when a defendant is wrongfully convicted? As a reporter and lawyer who regularly encounters such cases, I have begun to wonder if our system is really being faithful to the principles of the Sixth Amendment when there is no timely and effective way to correct mistakes and to free the innocent in prison. Case in point: the alarming story of Ryan Ferguson (pictured left).
Something went terribly wrong in 2005 at Ferguson’s trial in Columbia, Missouri. I thought that when I covered the trial for the CBS News show “48 Hours Mystery” that year and today that feeling is stronger than ever. Yet, even as evidence supporting Ferguson’s innocence continues to mount, the 26-year-old man remains in a maximum-security facility with no guarantee that his appeals will even lead to a new trial, much less freedom.
To call the facts of this case “bizarre” understates them. None of the physical evidence, and there is plenty of it, ties Ferguson to the crime. The only credible evidence against him comes from two witnesses, both of whom have since recanted and admitted that they lied at trial.
The case is more than a decade old. In the early morning hours of November 1, 2001, the sports editor at The Columbia Tribune, 48-year-old Kent Heitholt, was brutally murdered as he left his office. Two janitors reported seeing two young white men in the parking lot, leading police to search for two young male killers. The case went nowhere until early 2004. That is when Columbia police got wind of a young man, Chuck Erickson, who was telling friends that he was having weird dreams and thought he might have been involved in the Halloween night murder. Police brought him in and videotaped his interrogation. These videos are the most important and telling evidence in the case. They show a young man who knew few, if any, details of the crime. The videos also show police questioners giving Erickson the details he lacked. They tell him the weapon used to kill Heitholt. They even have to show him where the murder occurred.
Because the Columbia police still believed that two young men had committed the murder, they pressured Erickson to name the person he was with on the night of the murder. It was Ryan Ferguson. Police brought Ferguson in for questioning as well. Although Ferguson consistently denied any involvement, both he and Chuck Erickson were charged with Kent Heitholt’s murder. None of the fingerprints found on the victim’s car, the hair found in the victim’s hands or the blood and bloody footprints found at the scene matched either man.
Later, when Erickson was told – wrongly — that Ferguson had confessed and was ready to testify against him, he took a deal: in return for his testimony, he was allowed to plead to second-degree murder. With good behavior, he would likely spend less than ten years in prison while Ferguson — on trial for first-degree murder — faced a life sentence.
At trial, a year later, Chuck Erickson was transformed from that confused young man on the police interrogation tapes who knew nothing about the crime to a composed, convincing witness on the stand. There was also the testimony of Jerry Trump, a janitor who worked the night of the murder. Although Trump, a convicted sex offender, had told numerous people right after the murder that he couldn’t identify the young men he saw that night, at trial, there he was, dramatically pointing to Ferguson as one of the men at the crime scene.
The jurors saw the original police videotapes. They knew that none of the physical evidence matched Ferguson, but later they told me they just couldn’t believe Erickson would lie about a crime that would send him to prison. Believing his story, they convicted Ferguson, sentencing him to prison for forty years.
Today, we know that both Chuck Erickson and Jerry Trump have said in sworn statements that they indeed lied at trial. What’s more, we know that the prosecution should have been reluctant to rely nearly its entire case on Erickson’s memory. Erickson had been abusing alcohol and drugs since he was 14. In 2001, the same year as the murder, Erickson’s parents, concerned about his behavior and his dropping grades, took him for a psychological exam at the University of Missouri. The assessment indicated that the years of drug abuse had damaged Erickson’s memory. And on the night of the murder, Halloween night, Erickson admits that he was particularly impaired, having snorted a line of cocaine, used some prescription drugs and ingested as many as eight alcoholic beverages. Erickson says he had his first of many blackouts and that he has no memory at all of the night. He says he only implicated Ryan Ferguson because he didn’t want to be alone on “the chopping block.”
It’s true that witnesses recant all the time and that alone is not a reason for a new trial. But in Ryan Ferguson’s case, a new trial seems to be the only way to clear up serious questions as to his guilt. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Ryan Ferguson has already lost several appeals, most recently, in the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District. The three-member appeals court, in an opinion written by Judge Gary Witt, denied Ferguson’s appeal primarily on a procedural basis. Under Missouri state criminal procedure, a defendant is only allowed one chance to show that the trial court had made errors unless it can be shown that “the findings and the conclusions of the motion court [that heard his first motion for post-conviction relief] are…clearly erroneous.” The Court’s standard for appeals is particularly high, explains Sean O’Brien, a professor at the University of Missouri Law School in Kansas City, for historical reasons. He references a former state Supreme Court Chief Judge who felt that if you allowed appeals too easily, it might undercut the ability of the state to perform swift executions. (Indeed, even today Missouri is the fifth highest state in the country for executions even though the murder rate is much lower than that figure would suggest.)
Today, we do know – thanks to DNA tests – that some individuals do confess to crimes they didn’t commit. They are often young and unsophisticated or, as in the case of Chuck Erickson, suffer from a mental deficiency or impairment. Still, that idea remains so difficult to understand and accept that some jurors won’t even consider it. At the same time, says Professor O’Brien, judges remain reluctant to overturn jury verdicts, fearing that it “erodes the public confidence in the judicial system.”
“That is not to say the issues of this case do not give us pause,” concluded Judge Witt of the Ferguson case as he denied a new trial, noting that that the only evidence against Ferguson is the testimony of Erickson, and the courtroom identification by janitor Jerry Trump. But he then suggested that Ferguson file a petition for a writ of Habeas or request a pardon from the governor, all of which will add to the time Ferguson is incarcerated.
The truth is, the system is stacked against the convicted. Courts are reluctant to reverse cases and add to caseload. Appeals based on new evidence have to be raised early, even though, as in the case of Ryan, it often takes years for new evidence to surface. What’s more, every time a verdict is upheld on appeal, higher courts become even more reluctant to reopen the case. The notion of a jury of one’s peers is really the most important idea expressed in the 6th Amendment and if you believe in that system, what would be served by making it too easy to overturns such verdicts? But the argument that by allowing defendants to appeal we undercut the public’s trust in the system makes little sense to me. I think the public would have even more faith in a system that can correct itself. Time is running out for Ryan Ferguson. Where is his right to a fair trial?