COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) – Police said Wednesday that they will look into any new leads into the 2001 slaying of a Missouri newspaper sports editor after one of the two men originally convicted of murder had his case overturned and was freed.
The pronouncement by the Columbia Police Department came a day after Ryan Ferguson was released after serving almost a decade behind bars for the death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
An appeals court panel ruled last week that the prosecutor’s office wrongly withheld evidence from Ferguson’s attorneys and he therefore didn’t receive a fair trial. The Missouri attorney general said Tuesday that he will not retry Ferguson.
Ferguson has consistently maintained his innocence. After his release Tuesday night, he insisted that the high-school classmate who originally implicated him was innocent too, although Chuck Erickson is still serving a 25-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to Heitholt’s slaying.
Ferguson’s case gained national attention because Erickson claimed to have recalled through dreams years after the fact that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt in a late-night robbery while partying for Halloween. Erickson has since recanted his testimony.
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton issued a written statement Wednesday saying the department was reviewing “how or whether or not to proceed with additional investigation and/or a review of the case.”
“As always, we will continue to accept new information from anyone who is willing to come forward,” the police statement said.
Heitholt’s widow, Deborah Evangelista, did not respond to a telephone message Wednesday seeking comment about Ferguson’s release. In a message to Tribune managing editor Jim Robertson last week, she said it hurt to hear about Ferguson’s conviction being overturned. Robertson said Evangelista gave him permission to share the message.
“It is painful. You just want to let go and lead your life,” Evangelista said. “I have to keep reminding myself that whatever happens, God is in control and justice will ultimately be served by him.”
Ferguson had expressed sympathy Tuesday night for Heitholt’s family, saying “they’ve been lied to” by law enforcement authorities who pursued the case against him.
Ferguson’s appeal was handled by Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner, who specializes in cases in which she believes someone was wrongfully convicted. His quest for freedom was aided by an intense social media campaign.
The Free Ryan Ferguson Facebook page was changed Wednesday to “Freed Ryan Ferguson” and had 82,000 “Likes,” including almost 8,000 in the past day. It included a new fundraising appeal to help Ferguson as he begins his life outside prison.
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