Friday, March 28, 2014

Freedom For Ryan Ferguson Should Lead To The Release Of His Co-Defendant Charles Erickson

The following opinion by Bruce Fisher was published by on March 26, 2014.

Columbia Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt was brutally murdered on November 1, 2001, in Columbia, Missouri. Heitholt was attacked in the Tribune parking lot as he left work. His body was discovered next to his car. Heitholt had been struck from behind sustaining multiple head injuries and was strangled with his own belt. Fellow Tribune employee Michael Boyd was the last person to see Heitholt alive. Boyd claims that he met up with Heitholt briefly in the parking lot before driving away at around 2:20 AM. Police had no solid leads in the first 2 ½ years of the investigation.

In late 2003, Charles Erickson read an article published by the Columbia Tribune discussing the unsolved murder of Kent Heitholt. Unfortunately, Charles and his friends partied too hard that Halloween night, leaving Charles with no recollection of his actions at the time of the murder. It has been reported that party-goers, including Charles, were experimenting with Adderall, cocaine, and alcohol at a party that was broken up by police. Charles left that party and ended up catching a ride with Ryan Ferguson to the “By George” bar near the scene of the crime. When browsing through news reports, Charles feared that he resembled a composite sketch released by police. Knowing only that he was at a bar near the scene that night, caused him to worry that he might be involved.

Over a period of time, Charles began telling friends that he had a dream, leading him to think that he and Ryan Ferguson may have been involved in the murder. One of the friends that Charles spoke to called Crimestoppers with a tip and another friend would later call the police, leading Charles to find himself in an interrogation room trying to answer questions about a murder that he had nothing to do with.

At the time of his interrogation, Charles was very confused about the events that took place that night. When viewing his interrogation video, it is clear that Charles knows very little about the crime. The detectives spoon-feed Charles unreported details of the case, and pressure him into providing a false confession while implicating Ryan in the process.

Coming from a family with a history in law enforcement, Charles thought he could trust the police officers that were interrogating him. Unfortunately Charles was misled, causing him to plead guilty to the crime and provide false testimony against Ryan Ferguson in return for a reduced sentence. Ryan was wrongfully convicted in 2005, and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Investigators used extremely poor judgment when making the decision to extract a false confession out of a young man that was in no position to give a proper statement. Charles must not be held accountable for the egregious misconduct of the police investigating the Heitholt murder. Charles must not continue to be punished for a murder he did not commit. The Heitholt family deserves justice. The continued incarceration of Charles Erickson brings no justice and no real closure for the family of the victim.

When given the opportunity, Charles recanted his statements implicating him and Ryan Ferguson, and he has done everything in his power to help set the record straight, not only for Ryan, but also for the Heitholt family.

Thankfully, Ryan Ferguson was finally freed on November 12, 2013, after serving nearly ten years in prison. Charles Erickson remains wrongfully convicted, and is currently serving a 25 year prison sentence.

Ryan Ferguson’s attorney Kathleen Zellner recently filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking $100 million in damages for the wrongful conviction of her client. Zellner’s 50 page report details the egregious police misconduct that resulted in two innocent people being wrongfully convicted.

It is now blatantly obvious that Charles Erickson had absolutely nothing to do with the murder of Kent Heitholt. Proving Ryan Ferguson’s innocence also proves Charles’s innocence. Anyone that supports Ryan Ferguson, based on the facts of this case, should support the release of Charles Erickson.

This case continues to highlight the terribly flawed Missouri justice system. It is time for the nonsense to end. It is time to free Charles Erickson.

Charles Erickson is now being represented by Attorney Laura O’Sullivan, a professor at University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, and Senior Counsel with the Midwest Innocence Project. O’Sullivan voiced strong support for her client shortly after Ryan Ferguson’s release:

“Charles Erickson is relieved and overjoyed that Ryan Ferguson was released. Charles Erickson is a victim of the system. I will fight diligently and relentlessly for his release. Fifty percent justice is not enough, half the story won’t do. We need to finish the job of finding justice, justice for Charles Erickson, and ultimately, the Heitholt family”

A 48 Hours segment on the case, including an interview of Charles with Erin Moriarty is scheduled for March 29, 2014. Please be sure to check your local listings.

A new website has been created by Injustice Anywhere to help bring more attention to the Charles Erickson case. Please visit to learn more about this case.

You can also keep up to date with current events on the Free Charles Erickson Facebook page.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Fast Track Executions?

The following opinion by K.C. Cole was published by the Los Angeles Times on March 18, 2014.

What's wrong with this picture?

Exonerations of wrongly convicted prisoners are at an all-time high. Last month, the governor of Washington put executions on hold because, since 1981, when the state last updated its capital punishment laws, a majority of the 32 death sentences that were imposed were overturned. More than a dozen other states have also called a halt to executions, for various reasons.

And yet, three former California governors — George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis — are urging the state to speed up a clearly flawed process of deciding who's to die. Their approach could theoretically limit the state appeals process, which now generally takes 12 to 15 years, to five years.

It may be easy for most people — even former governors — to ignore or dismiss these injustices. Many of the wrongly convicted are poor black men, invisible to the majority of Americans. Too many of us buy into what's on TV detective shows: irrefutable scientific tools that identify the guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. Plus, nobody wants to admit that blameless people have died at the hands of the state. Humans will do almost anything to preserve their self-regard, including avoiding the implications of exonerations, every one of which, as social psychologist Carol Tavris says, "is stark, humiliating evidence of how wrong you are."

The facts should send chills up anyone's spine.

Take eyewitness testimony. According to the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to challenge wrongful convictions, eyewitness misidentification is the culprit in more than 70% of the cases. 

Researchers have pinpointed the way misidentifications increase dramatically across class, age and racial lines. A recent Stanford study found that an interviewer's perception of whether subjects were white or black changed depending on such circumstances as where the subjects lived and whether they had been imprisoned.

Memory, an obvious aspect of eyewitness evidence, is just as insidious. "I remember what I saw" is a misleading illusion. And despite what instinct tells you, those who tell very detailed and consistent stories are more likely to be liars than those who are uncertain or self-contradictory.

Memory is malleable. It can be easily "primed" or implanted, when statements are heard again and again. As Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman points out, "familiarity is not easily distinguishable from truth." That phenomenon may explain why innocent people confess, usually after hours of persuasive talk from prosecutors. Up to a fifth of those later found to be innocent confessed to the crime.

Popular television crime shows suggest that misperceptions and flawed memories don't matter because "scientific" evidence trumps all. In truth, what witnesses see and hear and experience is still often the only evidence presented. Worse, "scientific" evidence isn't necessarily reliable or even scientific.

A single fingerprint can land you in jail, and yet the notion that everyone possesses a unique set of prints has not been proved beyond a doubt. Though certainly useful, fingerprints are not the fail-safe method of establishing identity that has been sold to courts and the public. Ballistics, hair sampling, matching teeth marks — all seemingly solid evidence — are potentially unsound. Texas has just decided to review convictions based on microscopic hair analysis, a forensic tool that DNA analysis has showed to be iffy at best. At least one Texas inmate, Claude Jones, was found guilty and executed in 2000 primarily because of microscopic hair analysis that was later proved wrong.

Even the gold standard of evidence — DNA — is only as good as the lab handling it. It can offer a billion to 1 or more probability that the suspect was at least present at a crime scene. But DNA samples are often small or degraded or simply misidentified. It's sobering to note, as the National Research Council did in a report in 2009, that only 60% of publicly financed crime labs even employed a certified examiner.

All forensic evidence is only as strong as its weakest link. Whether the lab is analyzing bones, hair or genetic material, an error rate of 1 in 100 could translate into many thousands of wrongly convicted people. The good news is that the reliability of all this evidence can be improved.

The Justice Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology this year created panels of scientists and legal experts to finally set federal standards for forensic science and training practices. Eyewitness identification is more reliable if the officer conducting a lineup doesn't know who the suspect is, or if witnesses see the potential suspects separately rather than all at once. The forces behind false confessions become all too clear when interrogation sessions are taped. More research and more oversight are crucial.

Yes, the U.S. justice system ranks as one of the fairest in the world. But that doesn't exonerate it from the terrible mistakes it has made.

There's no doubt that many of the prisoners now on death row in California have committed unspeakable crimes. But if exoneration rates tell us anything, it's that some could well be innocent — the victims of bad science, wrong testimony and citizens who find it too easy to look the other way. Justice will never be perfect, but until the state acknowledges the gaps in the process and institutes reforms, it shouldn't be in a hurry to speed up the pace of executions.

K.C. Cole is a journalism professor at USC and a former science writer for The Times.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

New evidence of wrongful conviction

San Antonio Express News Editorial published March 6, 2014

SAN ANTONIO — Attorneys and judges have long lectured us about the difference between not guilty and innocent. A not guilty verdict simply means the prosecution was not able to produce enough evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

There is now new evidence of innocence and wrongful execution in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 in the arson deaths of his three daughters.

But if that “innocence” label bothers Gov. Rick Perry in weighing a posthumous pardon, he can still justifiably conclude that a “not guilty” verdict certainly should have occurred.

There exists plenty of compelling evidence that, had facts now known been known by the jury, there would have been such a verdict.

And had these facts been properly weighed or available, Willingham's execution would have been stayed. There might have been a new trial.

Even without weighing Willingham's “innocence,” Perry can clearly see justice too-flawed to warrant conviction, much less execution. This is the standard. And the new evidence just makes a stronger case that justice fell way short here.

A newly uncovered notation on a district attorney file strongly suggests that the jailhouse informant who testified that Willingham confessed to him had been given a deal from Navarro County DA John Jackson, now a district court judge.

The informant, Johnny Webb, told the court that he had received no deal. And Jackson has said none existed.

The notation was uncovered by the Innocence Project, which has petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for a posthumous pardon for Willingham. The project requested and got DA files connected to the case.

The notation — unsigned — was on the cover of the DA file on Webb's robbery charges. It read that the first-degree charge he had been convicted on should be reclassified to second degree “based on coop in Willingham.” Other documents show Jackson making attempts to get Webb an early release.

This is important because a claim in this case is that even if the arson evidence had not, even before Willingham's execution, been so thoroughly discredited, there was Webb's testimony.

Webb later recanted but Willingham's attorney was apparently never told of this, according to the Innocence Project.

In sum: Arson evidence so outdated it was useless in concluding guilt. Expert testimony to this effect before Willingham's execution.

And now the notation indicating the remaining evidence viewed as damning was secured with a promise of favorable treatment.

It's difficult to fathom an innocent reason for the notation on Webb's file. Favorable treatment, unpromised, but coming after the fact “based on coop in Willingham”? At the very least, this points to a wink-wink deal ensuring plausible deniability.

Perry's been here before. The Innocence Project asked the newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigative Willingham's case and another case as well.

Expert witnesses said fire investigators' testimony on the arson evidence in Willingham's case was seriously outdated.

But the commission, after Perry ousted some members, was ultimately barred by an opinion from Attorney General Greg Abbott from making a finding of negligence, though the investigation sparked a re-examination of how arson evidence is gathered and weighed. And it was a topic briefly in Perry's ill-fated presidential bid.

There is clear evidence in the Willingham case of the kind of flawed justice for which Texas, unfortunately, has become known. We understand the reluctance of death penalty advocates to give ground that points to an innocent person executed.

And, yes, Perry is the governor under whose watch Willingham was executed.

But the evidence is well beyond overwhelming, if not to innocence, at least to seriously miscarried justice and to a “not guilty” verdict if all facts were presented.

Governor, you can't bring back Willingham. You can, however, do as much as is now possible to right a wrong. Ultimately, this decision is yours. For belated mercy's sake, issue the posthumous pardon.