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Crane denies coaching witnesses

Crane denies coaching witnesses

April 19th, 2012 in News

A Missouri judge denied Thursday that he told witnesses what to say while he was a prosecutor pursuing a murder conviction in the 2001 slaying of a newspaper sports editor.

Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane testified in Cole County court during proceedings to determine whether one of two men imprisoned for the killing, Ryan Ferguson, should have his convictions and 40-year prison sentence set aside.

Ferguson was convicted of taking part in the murder and robbery of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt, who was beaten and strangled with his own belt in the newspaper's parking lot in the early morning hours of Nov. 1, 2001.

Police didn't get a break in the case until 2004, when Chuck Erickson came forward to confess that he had memories - some from his dreams - that he and Ferguson killed Heitholt during a robbery after running out of money at a nearby nightclub. Erickson received a 25-year sentence as part of a plea agreement for testifying against Ferguson.

Erickson, who was 17 at the time of the killing, now says his testimony was a lie and that Ferguson didn't actually kill or attack Heitholt. He also testified Wednesday that he doesn't recall whether he was involved in the killing because he had been drinking and taking drugs that night.

Judge Dan Green is holding the hearing to decide whether to set aside Feguson's conviction - potentially freeing him or ordering a retrial - based on Erickson's new claims.

Earlier this week, former newspaper janitor Jerry Trump testified that Crane and a Boone County investigator coached him on how to identify Ferguson and Erickson as the two men he saw on the night of Heitholt's slaying. Trump says his original testimony also was a lie.

Crane testified Thursday that during a meeting in his prosecutor's office in December 2004, Trump volunteered that he could identify the two men he saw near the newspaper parking lot on the night Heitholt was killed. But Crane said he wasn't sure that Trump actually would be able to identify Ferguson until he did so during a hearing as part of Ferguson's trial.

"I never told any witness, including Mr. Trump, what they needed to say or testify to," Crane said.

Crane also testified that he had no reason to believe that Erickson was presenting false testimony at Ferguson's 2005 trial.

"I wouldn't ask questions or put on a witness if I thought he was perjuring himself," Crane said.

Ferguson has consistently denied any involvement in the slaying, insisting that he drove Erickson to his house after they left the nightclub, then went home himself.

But Crane testified Thursday: "As a prosecutor, I had a good faith belief - and still do - that they're both guilty."

Erickson's original attorney, Mark Kempton, also was called to testify Thursday by lawyers from the state attorney general's office who are arguing that Ferguson's conviction should stand. Kempton said Erickson never indicated any uncertainty about his involvement in Heitholt's slaying.

"He told me he wanted to plead guilty," Kempton said.

Earlier Thursday, Kimberly Bennett - a high school friend of Ferguson - testified that she had been at the nightclub on Halloween night and had seen Ferguson and Erickson leave around 1:30 a.m., after the nightclub closed. She said they walked to Ferguson's car across the street and drove away. The timing of their departure would have been about an hour before Heitholt was killed.

Michael Boyd, a former sports writer for the paper, testified Thursday that he talked with Heitholt in the newspaper parking lot and left about 2:20 a.m. as it appeared Heitholt was getting into his car. Boyd said that as he was driving away he saw two people in a nearby alley, but he didn't recall any details about their gender, race or age.

Heitholt was found dead shortly afterward.