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Missouri man executed after faulty hair testimony; prosecutors say plenty of other evidence of guilt

Missouri man executed after faulty hair testimony; prosecutors say plenty of other evidence of guilt

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ST. LOUIS • The Missouri man executed after a trial that included overstated FBI hair comparisons was Jeffrey Ferguson, who was convicted in St. Louis County, according to documents obtained Wednesday by the Post-Dispatch.

But the prosecutor who handled Ferguson’s two murder trials said that the flawed analysis would not have made any difference in his conviction for the murder of Kelli Hall in 1989. Ferguson, 59, of Jefferson County, was executed on March 26, 2014.

The FBI, Justice Department, Innocence Project and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers announced over the weekend that FBI analysts misstated the certainty of incriminating hair comparisons in 268 trials prior to 2000.

The Innocence Project said Tuesday without giving details that six were in Missouri, including one involving a defendant later executed, and four in Illinois. The organization did not say whether any cases had rested solely on the hair evidence.

Asked if the revelation cast doubt on Ferguson’s conviction, prosecutor Tom Dittmeier said, “Absolutely not.”

Dittmeier, now a federal prosecutor, said that among the evidence were DNA, an eyewitness who saw Hall get into an SUV matching the description of Ferguson’s, and a determination that Ferguson possessed Hall’s stolen rings within hours of the murder.

“It was a very strong case,” Dittmeier recalled. He said a hearing challenging the DNA evidence lasted at least a week, and that a defense expert had come to the same conclusion as the FBI hair analyst.

Ferguson’s former trial lawyers could not be reached Wednesday.

Documents from the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office showed the condemned man at issue was Ferguson. They said that the FBI analyst, Michael Malone, made several errors in the cases against Ferguson and co-defendant Kenneth Ousley.

Malone “exceeded the limits of science” in claiming the hair “could be associated with a specific individual to the exclusion of all others,” the office’s documents say. They also say Malone erred in assigning a statistical probability to his claim and in citing the number of other comparisons performed to bolster his conclusion.

The FBI results were presented to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s office in a letter dated Aug. 20, 2013. “We ask that you determine the actions your office should take in light of this error,” the letter says.

Michael Barrett, general counsel of the State Public Defender System, said in an email that neither the Missouri Supreme Court nor the federal courts would give Ferguson a hearing on the hair analysis “despite the letter from the FBI.” The appeal says the FBI was aware of allegations concerning Malone years before Ferguson’s trial.

Barrett’s office appealed the case citing concerns over the hair analysis issue in 1997, after a Justice Department Office of Inspector General report said Malone “falsely testified” and testified outside his area of expertise in another case. That appeal was also rejected.

Hall, 17, was abducted about 11 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1989, from a St. Charles service station where she worked. Her clothes were found the next day. Her body was found 13 days later in Maryland Heights.

A St. Louis County jury convicted Ferguson in 1992 and recommended the death penalty, but the case was reversed on appeal because of a faulty jury instruction. A new jury came to the same conclusions in 1994.

Dittmeier recalled that both juries took about three hours to decide Ferguson’s guilt, and the same amount of time for his punishment.

At his second trial, Ferguson claimed he was innocent — that he was asleep at the time of the murder. But he later expressed remorse while behind bars. He acknowledged his guilt to Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan but said he was too drunk to remember the crime.

Ferguson’s father, Renyold Ferguson, was a Post-Dispatch photographer who retired in 1995.

Ousley pleaded guilty in 1993 of second-degree murder and is serving a life sentence. At his most recent parole hearing, last year, Ousley denied involvement in the murder, claiming that he only helped dispose of the body.

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