ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Chuck Erickson's testimony six years ago helped put his high school friend in prison for the slaying of a Columbia sports editor. He's now the key witness in Ryan Ferguson's bid for a new trial and says he lied and "sold out" his alleged accomplice in exchange for a lesser sentence.
"I felt the need to give a story that didn't have me as the main perpetrator," Erickson testified Wednesday in a Cole County hearing on an appeal from Ferguson.
Ferguson is serving a 40-year sentence after his 2005 conviction for second-degree murder and robbery in the death of Columbia Daily Tribune editor Kent Heitholt four years earlier. Heitholt was beaten and strangled with his own belt as he walked to his car in the newspaper's downtown parking lot in the early morning hours after Halloween. Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea bargain for implicating his Rock Bridge High School classmate.
Erickson, his arms and legs shackled, testified that he was a heavy drug and alcohol user who was persuaded by police and media accounts that he was guilty of the crime. His statements to police and prosecutors on his own involvement have since wavered, that his recollection of the details are hazy. Erickson, who was 17 at the time of the killing, said he had mixed the attention deficit hyperactivity drug Adderall with alcohol, cocaine and marijuana that night.
The 2001 slaying was unsolved for more than two years until Erickson came forward in 2004, attributing his confession in part to memories recovered from his dreams. He supposedly also bragged of the crime to a friend who tipped off police.
"I don't know if I'm flipping out or whatever," Erickson told a Columbia police detective in his initial interrogation, a video of which was shown in court Wednesday. "This is just what I'm putting together."
He continues to question his involvement, telling Ferguson's attorney Wednesday, "I don't think I did it. ... I can't honestly remember." Moments earlier, a videotaped deposition in which he recently confessed was shown in court.
Erickson was adamant, though, that Ferguson didn't kill or attack Heitholt. He was questioned by Ferguson attorney Kathleen Zellner of Chicago, who also had represented Erickson after he came forward in 2009 with his revised account but later dropped him as a client to avoid a conflict of interest.
Earlier in the week, appellate prosecutors from the state attorney general's office suggested that Erickson's change of heart was motivated by self-preservation. Assistant Attorney General Ted Bruce said Erickson sought to change his story only after being labeled a "rat" and "snitch" in prison and assaulted by other inmates. Erickson denied Wednesday that he was hoping to receive a lesser sentence or his own release.
The state's attorneys were preparing to cross-examine Ferguson Wednesday afternoon. The hearing was initially expected to last all week but could conclude on Thursday.
Another key witness, former Tribune janitor Jerry Trump, has also recanted previous testimony in which he identified Ferguson and Erickson as the two men he saw in the Tribune parking lot from his location near a company loading dock. Trump testified Tuesday that he was coached by Columbia police and Boone County prosecutor Kevin Crane and felt pressured to help them convict the two men.
Crane, who is now a Boone County judge, has previously denied wrongdoing and is expected to testify Thursday or Friday as a witness for the state. He spent 14 years as Boone County's elected prosecutor before he became a judge in 2007.
The hearing is taking place in Jefferson City because that's where Ferguson is imprisoned. Circuit Judge Daniel Green will decide whether Ferguson deserves a new trial and could grant his release, but he is not expected to rule this week. Rulings in similar cases in Missouri have often taken months, if not years.
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier